Friday, June 24, 2016

Rowling: "Newt walks into a society he doesn't really understand."

A new trailer for Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released on June 23rd. Rowling narrates it, saying:
My heroes are always people who feel themselves to be set apart, stigmatized, or othered. That's at the heart of most of what I write. It's certainly at the heart of this movie. 
Her use of "set apart, stigmatized, or othered" is the first irony in the trailer. All three are very much the experience of Native peoples in the US.

Rowling also says:
"Newt walks into a society he doesn't really understand." 
That is precisely what she's doing in the ways that she's appropriating from Native peoples for this story, set in a place she calls Ilvermorny, where she's borrowing, people say, from "Native American lore."

With the appropriation of Native stories,
Rowling has walked into societies 
that she doesn't understand. 

Back in May of 2016 the Daily Mail ran a story about Federico Ian Cervantez, a software engineer, who was "rooting through the javascript" and found an Ilvermorny Sorting Ceremony quiz that asked, "Where do you belong? Horned Serpent, Wampus, Thunderbird or Pukwudgie." Fans write that "Wampus" is Cherokee and "Pukwudgie" is Wampanoag. What, I wonder, are their sources for those declarations? What, I wonder, are Rowling's sources?!

Back in March when Rowling released her first story in Magic in North America, Native peoples responded to that first video, and the stories, too. I compiled them here: Native People Respond to Rowling. I wonder what we'll see in the movie?




Tuesday, June 21, 2016

William Grill's THE WOLVES OF CURRUMPAW

Several weeks ago, I was tagged in a Twitter conversation about William Grill's The Wolves of Currumpaw. The title rang a bell but I've not been able to recall why. Since then, I've had a chance to spend time with Grill's book.

Here's the synopsis:
The Wolves of Currumpaw is a beautifully illustrated modern re-telling of Ernest Thompson Seton's epic wilderness drama Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, originally published in 1898. Set in the dying days of the old west, Seton's drama unfolds in the vast planes of New Mexico, at a time when man's relationship with nature was often marked by exploitations and misunderstanding. This is the first graphic adaptation of a massively influential piece of writing by one of the men who went on to form the Boy Scouts of America.
The picture book is due out in the U.S. on July 12, 2016 from Flying Eye Books in London. It came out there in May. As the synopsis indicates, it is about Ernest Thompson Seton (founder of the Boy Scouts of America) and a wolf.

However, when I started to read the book, I was taken aback at two things: the illustrations of Native peoples, and, the absence of them from the text itself.

The first words of the book set its time and place: "The Old West, New Mexico, 1862."

The illustration shows an empty expanse of trees and in the distance, some mountains. New Mexico became a territory of the United States in 1848. By 1851, there were over 1000 US soldiers in the territory.

Later in The Wolves of Currumpaw, we learn that the story itself is set in Clayton, New Mexico, which is located in the northeast corner of the state. That means it was in the area of the country that was the homelands for Plains tribes like the Comanches, Cheyennes, or Kiowas.

The first full sentence in The Wolves of Currumpaw is on page 5:
Half a million wolves once roamed freely across North America, but with the arrival of European settlers the habitats of the animals began to change. 
On the facing page, the text is:
These were the dying days of the old west and the fate of wolves was sealed in it.
See? No mention of Native peoples for whom that area was their homelands. How convenient. Most people, by default, use "settlers" to describe those people. That word is seen, by some, as neutral. Others use "invaders" or "occupiers" or "squatters" to call our attention to the political and imperialism that was going on.

Reading the illustrations on page 5, however, the story is a troubling mix of inaccuracy, stereotyping, and a deeply disturbing image of what is meant to be an Native man on his knees, arms raised as if praying or pleading, in front of three soldiers who have their guns aimed at him. Here's the full page:



Numbering the images left to right, row by row, here's the story I discern and my thoughts on that story, too:

1. The US flag is shown as moving from the East Coast across to the West Coast. That's a graphic depiction of Manifest Destiny. I think white people were using the Santa Fe Trail to move to New Mexico. One problem with that depiction of the movement of white people is that it obscures history and the actual movements of Europeans into the southwest. The Spanish invaders were in the southwest long before the 1800s.

2. A white man in a red coat, and his child, are scoping out the land, deciding where to put their house. We don't know where that house is located, specifically. Somewhere near Clayton, New Mexico, but where? And what is the history of that particular land and who it belonged to at that moment in time? Since this book is, ultimately, about wolves, I guess we're not expected to ask those questions. That is not what the book is about, I imagine people saying. Those who put forth that response think I, and others who raise such questions, have "an agenda" as if they, themselves, don't! They do. Their push back is evidence of their agenda.

3. The white man's home is finished.

4. A white man in a black coat, shaking hands with an Indian man. Why? Did they, just at that moment in the story, meet?! Are they saying hello to each other? We don't know. Because we don't have enough information, I'm using "Indian" to describe the man. If Grill was being tribally specific, he might have told us the man's tribal nation. But again--this book is not about Indians, so, to Grill and those who read it as such, I'm probably asking an annoying question.

5. An Indian man on horse, hunting buffalo.
6. White men with rifles, killing many buffalo.
7. White men proud of how many buffalo they have killed.

The illustration of the man standing on a huge pile of buffalo skulls is based on a famous photograph dated 1892. Here they are, side by side. On the left is the original photograph, housed in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library. A handwritten note on back says "C.D. 1892 Glueworks, office foot of 1st St., works at Rougeville, Mich."


The handwritten note on back is 1892; Grill's book is set 30 years earlier in a different state. Does it matter? Yes! The wholesale slaughter of buffalo is one of the darkest moments in US history. Consider, for example, what General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1868 to General Sheridan:
"[A]s long as Buffalo are up on the Republican the Indians will go there. I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all. Until the Buffalo and consequent[ly] Indians are out [from between] the Roads we will have collisions and trouble" (Smits, 1994). 
Grill's use of the photograph is apparently a set-up for the next image...

8. An Indian man points to buffalo skulls on the ground. We can interpret that to mean he's giving the white man heck for his role in the slaughters. Without a doubt, Native peoples objected to what white people did, but Grill's telling of history is a wreck. What happens in the next few illustrations is deeply disturbing.

9. White men build fence right through Indian tipis. The Indian man appears to be saying "stop" to the white man.
10. The white man and the Indian man fight.
11. The Indian man, on his knees, appears to either pray or plead with three U.S. soldiers as they level their rifles at him.
12. Indians being led away.

It is hard for me to come up with words to describe #11. I wonder how Grill came up with that particular illustration? What did he read? Why did he think an illustration like that ought to be part of the story he tells? Did his editor ask him about it? What did he say?  It is, of course, a brutally violent image. And while that sort of thing did happen, historically, it does strike me as the sort of thing that most people would deem as being inappropriate for seven year old readers (the book is marked as being for children aged 7 - 14 years). But it isn't noted in the review from Publisher's Weekly or from Kirkus either. Did they notice it?

And that last image, of the Indians, being taken away by armed men on horses. That marks the end of Native peoples in Grill's book. The sentence at top of the next (facing) page is:
These were the dying days of the old west and the fate of wolves was sealed in it.
No mention of Native peoples in that sentence, and no reference to Native peoples in the set of illustrations below that sentence either. From there, the story moves to how the white people's livestock is being killed by wolves, and so, the wolves are killed.

In the next dated section (1893) the story shifts to a legendary wolf. There's a reference in the text there:
Old Lobo, or the King, as the natives called him, was the great leader of a notorious pack of grey wolves.
On the next page, Grill gives us names for the wolves (Lobo, Grey Wolf, and Blanca) and white people (Seton, LaLoche, Tannery, and Calone). But, no tribal or personal names.

Overall, we're meant to admire how smart Lobo is, and we're meant to be troubled by what Seton does in his effort to kill Lobo. It is gruesome in parts, and, his use of Lobo's mate (Blanca) as a lure is unsettling. In the end, Lobo dies in captivity. Again, I wonder about the book and its use with young children. The final chapter is about Seton's turning about. Full of regret he becomes a key figure in protecting wolves and other wildlife. In 1902, he founded the Woodcraft Indians.

I truly do not understand the thinking behind this story. It is gratuitous in its violence. If the point is to understand a man's turning point, do we really need page after page about the things he did to try to kill this wolf? Some of it is meant to tell us the wolf was cunning, but the bulk of The Wolves of Currumpaw is about trying to capture that wolf.

That image of the three soldiers with rifles pointed at the Indian man... that, too, is gratuitous. The history is wrong, the story us needlessly violent, and as such, I can't recommend The Wolves of Currumpaw. And I do not understand why Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review. This review feels ragged as I read and re-read it. I may be back to polish it, but my inability to get to a place where I feel it is ready to share is an indicator of how messed up it is.

Works Cited:

Smits, David D. The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865-1883. In The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol 25 #3, Autumn, 1994, pp. 312-338.











Friday, June 17, 2016

Cammie McGovern's JUST MY LUCK

Cammie McGovern's Just My Luck is new this year (2016) from HarperCollins. A reader wrote to ask me about it, because Indian in the Cupboard is part of the story.

I started reading it two days ago and kept setting it aside. The main character is a 4th grader named Benny. His brother, George, is in 6th grade, and is "medium-functioning autistic" (p. 16). I hope Disability in Kidlit finds someone to review it. Some time back, I read their review of Anne Ursu's The Real Boy. I love that book. One thing that stood out in the review was that the story is told from the perspective of the autistic child, rather than from outsider's who gawk at him. There are pages in Just My Luck where it feels like someone is gawking at George. 

I got to page 49 and paused. At that point in the story, Benny is with his older brother, Martin, who is on his first date with Lisa. They go into a Barnes & Noble, where Lisa asks Benny what he's reading (p. 49):
She said she knew it sounded childish but her favorite books were still the Little House on the Prairie series that she read when she was in Mr. Norris's class. "I just love them," she said."
Benny has a crush on Lisa, and so, he says he loves them, too. He's never read them, but their mother used to make them watch the TV show. Two weeks later when she's visiting their house, Benny pretends to be reading Little House in the Big Woods. Lisa exclaims that it is her favorite book.

I wonder if McGovern read that book recently? In Little House in the Big Woods, Pa tells the girls how he, as a young boy, would play that he was a mighty hunter stalking wild animals and Indians. Stalking Indians. Do you remember that part of that book? Do you know any other book for kids that has someone hunting another person or people?

I wanted to throw Just My Luck across the room when I got to that part and I want to ask McGovern if she remembers that passage.

On page 64, Lisa tells Benny that Mr. Norris read Indian in the Cupboard aloud to them when she was in his class and that he dressed up as characters, too. That was five years back. Benny is in Mr. Norris's class now and he's not done anything like that. Benny tells his mom that Mr. Norris wasn't reading Indian in the Cupboard to them, so, his mom gets the book from the library and starts reading it aloud, doing the voices as she does (p. 72):
It turns out he's [Little Bear] not only alive, but he's a real person from history, an Iroquois who's fighting battles with the French and English. So Mom has to talk like him, which George loves because he doesn't talk very well. George keeps laughing until Mom tells him it isn't really funny. "In fact," she says, "it perpetuates a lot of negative stereotypes about Native Americans, which is probably why Mr. Norris isn't reading this book out loud to his class anymore."
Then she keeps on reading. She's decided, apparently, that she's going to perpetuate those stereotypes herself. That doesn't add up, does it? And it doesn't seem very caring of her to lay into George like she did, either. She's deliberately being an animated reader, which prompts a response from her autistic son, and she scolds him?! And keeps reading?!

Throughout the next chapters, Benny thinks about toys coming to life. He wants a cupboard so he can bring his Legos to life. Several times, he thinks about Indian in the Cupboard as he develops the idea for how he'll use his Legos to make a movie. Later, they find out why Mr. Norris isn't doing the things he used to do. It isn't because he's recognized the problems in Indian in the Cupboard. It is because he's got to take care of his own autistic son, and he's exhausted. He has no time or energy to do the things he used to do.

I don't like Just My Luck. If Disability in Kidlit reviews it, I'll be back to point to their review. For now, the Native content alone is enough for me to say that I do not recommend Just My Luck. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Debbie--have you seen THE CASE OF THE PORTRAIT VANDAL by Steve Brezenoff

This particular "Debbie--have you seen" is here, not because someone asked me about it, but because it was recommended on child_lit a few days ago because it has an Ojibwe character.

The character in The Case of the Portrait Vandal is "Raining Sam" as shown in the synopsis:
There's a vandal in the Capitol City Museum of American History, and he or she is intent on defacing priceless artifacts. Raining Sam, the son of the Head of Educational Programs and local Ojibwe tribe member, is determined to get to the bottom of things before anything else can be destroyed. But when Raining himself is considered a suspect, he and his friends must race against the clock to unmask the real culprit and solve the museum mystery before it's too late.

The name, "Raining Sam" and then "Raining" as his first name throughout is a bit of a stumbling block for me. But I do like this part about Wilson (Raining's friend):
Wilson knew about Raining's interest in American history, especially the history of his own people, the Ojibwe. The tribe had been on the continent known as North America a lot longer than some other people.
I also like the part where Wilson can tell that their two friends are approaching because Wilson knows what their footsteps sound like (p. 15):
"Amazing," said Raining, standing up from his spot at the table. "And people think we're supposed to be the trackers." It bugged Raining that people he met still assumed certain things about North America's indigenous people."
The book is part of a mystery series starring four kids whose parents work in museums. Here's a screen capture of them. On the far left is Wilson. Next to him is Amal. By her is Clementine, and, that's Raining on the far right.



Published in 2015 by Capstone, there's a copy of The Case of the Portrait Vandal on the new books shelf in my local library. I'll be back when I get a chance to read it. It




I AM NOT A NUMBER, by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer

Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer's I Am Not A Number, illustrated by Gillian Newland and due out from Second Story Press on October 4th of this year (2016), is one of the books I will recommend to teachers and librarians.

Dupuis is a member of the Nipissing First Nation.

In 1928, Dupuis's grandmother, Irene Couchie Dupuis, was taken to a residential school in Canada. "Residential" is the term used in Canada for the schools created by the Canadian government. They are similar to the government boarding schools in the U.S. These were schools designed to "christianize" and "civilize" Native children. Some of them were mission schools where efforts were made to convert the children to whatever denomination ran the school.

I Am Not A Number opens with a frightening moment. An Indian agent is at their door, to take Irene and her brothers to residential school. When Irene's mother tries to keep Irene, the agent says "Give me all three or you'll be fined or sent to jail." Irene's parents, like many Native parents, were coerced into giving up their children.

When Irene arrives at the school and tells the nun (it is a mission school run by the Catholic Church) her name, she's told "We don't use names here. All students are known by numbers. You are 759." Irene thinks to herself that she is not a number, hence, the title for the book.

Her hair, as the cover shows, was cut. That happened to children when they arrived at the schools. It was one in a long string of traumatic moments that Native children experienced at residential or boarding schools.

Another was being punished for using their own language. At one point, Irene gives another girl a piece of bread. The girls speak briefly to each other in their language, Ojibwe. One of the nuns hits Irene with a wooden spoon, telling her "That's the devil's language." The nun drags Irene away for "a lesson." The lesson? Using a bedpan filled with hot coals to burn Irene's hands and arms. It was one kind of abuse that children received, routinely.

Irene's story ends on a different note than many of the residential and boarding school stories. She and her brothers go home for the summer. What she tells her parents about her time at the school moves them to make plans so that Irene and her brothers don't go back. When the agent shows up in the fall, the children hide in their dad's workshop. The agent looks for them, but Irene's dad challenges the agent, saying "Call the police. Have me arrested." In a low, even voice, he tells the agent that he (the agent) will never take his children away again. In the Afterword, Dupuis writes that her grandmother was only at the school for that one year. Her father's resistance worked. She was able to stay home, with her family.

Residential and boarding school stories are hard to read, but they're vitally important. In the back matter, Dupuis and Kacer provide historical information about the residential school system. They reference the report the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the TRC) released in 2015, too. The work of the TRC is being shared in Canada, and books like I Am Not A Number should be taught in schools in Canada, and the U.S., too. In my experience, schools don't hesitate to share stories of "savage Indians" who "massacre" those "innocent settlers." In fact, the Native peoples who fought those settlers were fighting to protect their own families and homelands. Depicting them as aggressors is a misrepresentation of history. The history of the US and Canada is far more complex than is taught. It is way past time that we did a better job of teaching children the facts.

I'll end with this: I'm thrilled whenever I see books in which the author/publisher have opted not to use italics for the words that aren't English ones. There's no italics when we read miigwetch (thank you) and other Ojibwe words in I Am Not A Number. Kudos to Second Story Press for not using italics.

A critical look at O'Dell's ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS

Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins is set on San Nicolas Island, a small island off the coast of Santa Barbara California. In the Author’s Note at the back of the book, O’Dell writes that “[t]he girl Robinson Crusoe whose story I have attempted to re-create actually lived alone upon this island from 1835 to 1853, and is known to history as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas” (p. 187). Because nobody could understand her language, her given name is not known. Named Juana Maria by the Mission priest who took her in at Santa Barbara Mission, she died six weeks after her rescue. To anthropologists, the people of the island are known as Nicoleños.

In his story, O’Dell changes Juana Maria’s status to a twelve-year old girl named Karana. As the story opens, Karana and her little brother Romo are digging roots when a ship arrives. On board is a Russian captain named Orlov who has come with forty of his (Aleut) men to hunt sea otter. Based on past experiences, Chief Chowig (Karana’s father) and Orlov have a tense discussion about what the Ghalas-at will receive in return for the otters that will be taken from the waters that abut the island. Months later when Orlov readies to leave without holding up his end of the bargain, a fight breaks out. Most of the men of Ghalas-at, including Chowig, are killed. Two years later, the survivors are rescued. After the rescue ship leaves the cove, Karana realizes Romo is not on board. She jumps ship to stay with him and wait for another rescue ship. Soon after, wild dogs kill Romo, and Karana is alone until her rescue.

Her years on the island make survival a central theme of the story. During that time, she builds several shelters, makes weapons that only men are supposed to make (according to tribal traditions), finds food, fights wild dogs, befriends a large dog that she thinks came to the island with the Russian ship and then when he dies, tames a wild dog that she thinks was fathered by the large dog. She survives an earthquake, a tsunami, and several harsh winter storms.

At the close of the story, she is leaving the island. Based on the text, she has been there at least four years. On page 162, the text reads that two years have passed since the Aleuts had been on the island. At that point, Karana stopped counting the passage of time. One spring, there is an earthquake. As she makes a new shelter, she sees a ship and at first, she hides from the two men who come ashore. She decides she wants to be with people again, and rushes down to the cove but the canoe is gone. Two years pass and a ship returns. This time, she doesn’t hide. When the ship leaves, she is on board with her dog and two caged birds.

A few words about Scott O’Dell

Born in Los Angeles, California in 1898, O’Dell died in 1989. He spent the first thirty years of his adult life working in Hollywood as a cameraman and writer. In 1920, a California newspaper misprinted Odell Gabriel Scott’s name as Scott O’Dell. Liking the misprint, Scott legally changed his name and from then on, was known as Scott O’Dell. In 1947, he became the book editor for the Los Angeles Daily News (Payment, 2006).

In addition to his writing, O’Dell spent time with his father on his orange grove ranch, where he visited ranches of Spanish families of the Pomona Valley and listened to their stories of the past. This led him to write three novels for adults, and a history of California.

In 1957, O’Dell published Country of the Sun: Southern California, An Informal History and Guide. Therein, he references Helen Hunt Jackson’s articles, published in 1882 in Century Magazine, about the mistreatment of the Cupeno Indians of California. He also references her novel, Ramona, published in 1884, saying her novel “had about the same impact as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Overnight, the country was aroused to the plight of the Southern California Indian” (p. 52). Country of the Sun includes two pages about “The Lost Woman of San Nicolas Island”.

O’Dell developed the story into a book-length manuscript and showed it to Maud Lovelace (author of the Betsy-Tacy books). She persuaded him “that it was a book for children, and a very good one” (Scott O’Dell, n.d.). Lovelace penned the biography for O’Dell when he won the Newbery Medal for Island of the Blue Dolphins. She concludes the biography with “Scott O’Dell’s life brought him naturally a knowledge of Indians, dogs, and the ocean; and he was born with an inability to keep from writing. So he gave us the moving legend of Karana” (p. 108).

In his acceptance speech, O’Dell referenced animal cruelty and forgiveness as themes that are present in his book. He also spoke at length of Antonio Garra, a Cupeno Indian man who, just before he was executed under bogus charges, said “I ask your pardon for all my offenses, and I pardon you in return” (O’Dell, p. 103). O’Dell went on to say that this man, of a peaceful tribe, is unknown to the world because he was peaceful rather than “like Geronimo” (p. 103). Karana, he said, belonged to a tribe like Garra’s. He concluded his speech saying that Karana, before her people were killed, lived in a world where “everything lived only to be exploited” but that she “made the change from that world” to “a new and more meaningful world” because she learned that “we each must be an island secure unto ourselves” where we “transgress our limits” in a “reverence for all life” (p. 104).

Acclaim and Critiques of Island of the Blue Dolphins

Island of the Blue Dolphins received glowing reviews and went on to win the Newbery Award. It was made into a movie in 1964 and has since been made into audio recordings several times. The National Council of Teachers of English listed it on its “Books for You” in 1972, 1976, and 1988. In 1976, the Children’s Literature Association named it one of the ten best American children’s books of the past 200 years (O’Dell, 1990). It is the subject of numerous amateur videos on YouTube and there are volumes of lesson plans written for teachers. Over the years, the cover has changed several times. As of this writing, it has 734 customer reviews on Amazon.com. Thirty-three readers gave it one star, while over 600 gave it four or five stars. 

In 1990, Island of the Blue Dolphins was republished, with illustrations rendered by Ted Lewin, and an introduction by Zena Sutherland. A fiftieth anniversary edition was published in 2010, with a new introduction by Lois Lowry. She showers O’Dell’s novel with praise, noting that he “masterfully” brings the reader onto the island (O’Dell, 2010). In 2010, School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird listed it as one of the Top 100 Children’s Novels (Reese, 2010). In 2010, the book was listed in second place on Amazon’s list of “Bestsellers in Children’s Native American Books” (Reese, 2010).

In the academic literature, Maher (1992) writes that Island of the Blue Dolphins is a “counterwestern” that gives “voice to the oppressed, to those who lost their lands and their cultures” (p. 216). Tarr (1997) disagrees with that assessment, asserting that the reader’s uncritical familiarity with stereotypical depictions of American Indians is the reason it has fared so well. Moreover, Tarr (2002) writes that the stoic characterization of Karana and her manner of speaking without contractions are stereotypical Hollywood Indian depictions rather than one that might be called authentic. Placing the novel in a social and historical context gives depth to Tarr’s statement and also explains why it is so popular.

Island of the Blue Dolphins in a Social and Historical Context

In the years preceding the publication of Island of the Blue Dolphins, America was enjoying the heyday of Hollywood Westerns that depicted savage Indians who terrorized settlers and captured their women, and heroic White men who courted Indian maidens and bemoaned the way Indians were treated by Whites. John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) follows a stagecoach of travelers who must be mindful of Indian attacks. Broken Arrow (1950) featured Jimmy Stewart as a man in love with an Apache girl and who, out of love and sympathy, tries to help make peace between the Apaches and the U.S. troops. In The Searchers (1956), John Wayne plays the role of a man on the search for a White girl who had been abducted by Indians.

Some of the research that went into Country of the Sun reappears in Island. Presumably, O’Dell conducted his research during the 1950s. That decade was a devastating time for several American Indian nations, a time during which their identity as sovereign nations was again under government attack. It is useful to review how they came to be known as sovereign nations.

From the moments of their arrival on the continent now called North America, Europeans encountered well-ordered nations or tribes of Indigenous peoples, each with its own territories and forms of governance. Recognition of that nationhood is evident in the treaties European heads of state made with their counterparts amongst the 500+ sovereign Indigenous nations (Deloria and DeMallie, 1999). In the treaties, lands were ceded to the United States in return for federally provided health care, housing, and education. As time passed, various entities wanted to nullify the treaties, thereby discontinuing federal funding to tribes and making available lands held by tribes. Desire for land, coupled with the rampant corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs that had federal oversight for the tribes, led Congress to terminate its nation-to-nation relationship with the tribes through a policy outlined in House Concurrent Resolution 108 (Wilkinson and Biggs, 1977) that led to several public laws enacted by Congress, including the California Rancheria Termination Act (Public Law 85-671). Through the Termination period (1953-1962), over one hundred bands, communities, and rancherias (California Mission Indians) in California were terminated (Nies, 1996). Given his care to include mistreatment of California Indians in the 1800s, it is curious that O’Dell does not reference any of the Terminations in Country of the Sun.

Emma Hardacre’s Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

As noted, Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on the life of Juana Maria. At the time of his research, the resources he had available to him about Juana Maria were newspaper accounts and articles about her. Emma Hardacre’s “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island” was first published in Scribner’s Monthly in 1880, and then again in 1950 and 1973. Hardacre begins by noting that Robinson Crusoe is a work of fiction, whereas the story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island was true. In Santa Barbara, people spoke less and less about the “widow, between twenty and thirty years of age” who leapt from the ship to be with her child who had accidentally been left behind (p. 75).

Years later, a Mission priest named Father Gonzales commissioned Thomas Jeffries to go to San Nicolas to see if she was still alive. Jeffries (p. 277):
found the remains of a curious hut, made of whales’ ribs planted in a circle, and so adjusted as to form the proper curve of a wigwam-shaped shelter. This he judged to have been formerly either the residence of the chief or a place of worship where sacrifices were offered. He had picked up several ollas, or vessels of stone, and one particularly handsome cup of clouded green serpentine. 

More interesting to Jeffries was the abundance of sea otter. Soon after his return to the mainland, he returned to the island with George Nidiver and a crew of Indians on an otter hunt. For six weeks, they hunted seal and otter. Leaving the island, a sailor said he thought he saw a human figure calling to them, but the figure vanished.

On their third trip to hunt at the island, Nidiver saw a footprint and exclaimed that the woman was alive. The next day, Nidiver found a basket that contained “bone needles, thread made of sinews, shell fishhooks, ornaments, and a partially completed robe of birds’ plumage, made of small squares neatly matched and sewed together” (p. 279). In their search of the inland, they found “several circular, roofless inclosures [sic], made of woven brush. Near these shelters were poles, with dried meat hanging from elevated crosspieces” (p. 279). Not finding the woman, they determined the footprint was older than they thought, and some thought that she was probably dead. Fishing continued for several weeks. Nidiver believed she might be alive and hiding and decided to look until he found her or her remains.

A search was organized. They found the whale bone house, where “rushes were skillfully interlaced in the rib framework; an olla and old basket were near the door.” (p. 279).  Climbing over slippery rocks, they found fresh footprints and followed them up a cliff. Brown, a fisherman, saw the woman in an enclosure and approached her. A pack of dogs growled at him but ran away when she uttered a cry that silenced them. She did not see Brown approaching. Hardacre reports that “the complexion of the woman was much fairer than the ordinary Indian, her personal appearance pleasing, features regular, her hair, thick and brown, falling about her shoulders in a tangled mat” (p. 280). She was anxiously watching the men below her dwelling. Brown signaled to the men that he had found her and that they should approach. When he spoke to her, she ran a few steps, then (p. 280):
 instantly controlling herself, stood still, and addressed him in an unknown tongue. She seemed to be between forty and fifty years of age, in fine physical condition, erect, with a well-shaped neck and arms and unwrinkled face. She was dressed in a tunic-shaped garment made of birds’ plumage, low in the neck, sleeveless, and reaching to the ankle.

She greeted the other men and then set about preparing a meal for them that consisted of roasted roots. Through gestures, they communicated that she was to go with them. She understood immediately and put her things in pack baskets. 

On board their ship, Brown wanted to preserve her feather dress, and so made her a petticoat of ticking. He gave her a man’s cotton shirt and a neckerchief. She watched Brown closely as he sewed, and showed him how she used her bone needle to puncture the cloth and then put thread through the perforations. Through gestures, she told Brown of her years on the island, how she made fire “by rapidly rubbing a pointed stick along the groove of a flat stick until a spark was struck” and that she was careful not to let it go out, covering her home fire with ashes to preserve it. She ate fish, seals’ blubber, roots, and shellfish, and she used bird skins for clothing. Her main dwelling was a large cave on the north end of the island. 

On arrival in Santa Barbara, people flocked to Nidiver’s home to see her. Through gestures, she told Nidiver’s wife that dogs had eaten her baby and how she grieved its loss. She also communicated her dread of being alone, her years of hope for rescue, and at last, resignation at being alone. Nidiver was unable to find anyone amongst the Indians in the Missions who could understand her language. They learned some of her words: “A hide she called to-co (to-kay); a man, nache (nah-chey); the sky, te-gua (tay-gwah); the body, pinche  (pin-oo-chey)” (p. 283). She was so gentle and modest that some believed she was not an Indian, but “a person of distinction cast away by shipwreck” (p. 283). She got weaker and weaker and when she was near death, Nidiver’s wife asked Father Sanchez to baptize her. He did so, giving her the name Juana Maria. She was buried in a walled cemetery and the mission fathers “sent her feather robes to Rome. They were made of the satiny plumage of the green cormorant, the feathers pointing downward, and so skillfully matched as to seem one continuous sheen of changeful luster” (p. 284).

Academic Resources

The academic resources on the people of San Nicolas Island were scant at that time that O’Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins. Archeological studies post-1960 have generated a richer body of materials. Pre-1960, O’Dell likely drew from resources he used when writing his history of California. These included Kroeber’s handbook. He reports that her speech (language) was “thoroughly unintelligible” to Chumash Indians in the area and to Indians from Santa Catalina Island as well (p. 634). Most dwellings, Kroeber wrote, “were reared on a frame of whale ribs and jaws, either covered with sea-lion hides or wattled with brush or rushes” (p. 634). Dugout canoes “may have been burned from drift logs” (p. 634). Seals, water birds, fish, and mollusks were the primary source of food, supplemented by roots. He concludes with “whether the toloache cult or the image form of mourning anniversary had reached the island must remain in abeyance; and as to society, there is total ignorance. Ghalas-at has been given as the name of the island. This is perhaps the native or the Chumash pronunciation of Gabrielino Haras-nga” (p. 635.)

O’Dell may have read a study published in an archeological journal in 1953. Meighan and Eberhart’s study stated that “ethnographically, almost nothing is known of the tribe” and that there was a “virtual absence of trade goods, in particular glass beads” (p. 109). They reference the possessions of the woman as follows: “a well made sinew rope 25 feet long and one-half inch in diameter, thought to have been used in snaring sleeping seals” and, “sinew fishing line; bone and abalone shell fishhooks; bone needles; bone knives, and a knife made of a piece of iron hoop stuck in a rough wooden handle” (p. 112). Items found on the island include mats and skirt fragments made of eel grass, grass skirts, woven bags, woven baskets, stone knives with wooden handles, a stone drill with a wooden handle, wooden knife handles, a wooden ladle, an arrow shaft, a wooden dark foreshaft with bone bars, a drill with wooden shaft and stone point, harpoon points, a great many mortars and pestles, steatite dishes and bowls, stone beads and pendants, bird and sea-lion claws used as pendants, stone ground spoons and ladles . Meighan and Eberhart report four Nicoleno words: “tokay (hide), nahchey (man), taygway (sky), and pinoochey (body). Bird bones were used to make beads, whistles, awls, and fishhooks.  Fish and shellfish were the primary source of food, including abalone, rock scallops, mussels, limpets, and sea urchins.

Clearly, these two key sources say little was known about the people of Ghalas-at and the woman at the heart of O’Dell’s novel. And yet, he was able to write a novel of 186 pages. With this survey of the source material of that time, I turn to a close read of specific passages from the story.

A Close Read of Island of the Blue Dolphins
In the following table, the left column contains a selection of material from the story. In the right column are notes specific to the information in the left column. Some of the passages are not addressed in the Discussion following the table; they are retained in the table for further research.
Text
Notes
“I remember the day the Aleut ship came to our island” (p. 9)
“I” is Karana. On page 12, O’Dell tells us the name of the island: Ghalas-at. The Aleut’s are an Indigenous people from what came to be known as Alaska. During the time of the novel (1835), the Aleuts were enslaved by Russians and forced to hunt sea otters (Pullar, 1996).
Karana describes Romo, her 6-year old brother: “He was small for one who had lived so many suns and moons” (p. 9)
Writers often use the cliché “many moons ago” when writing from an Indian point of view. Though it is obvious that people who do not speak English would have words in their language for sun or moon or the passage of time, the “many moons ago” idiom, inserted into the mind/mouth of any Native character obscures the diversity of language.
When Romo sees the Aleut ship, he describes it as “a small cloud” (p. 10).
In Country of the Sun, O’Dell recounts a Cahuilla legend, “The Lost Spanish Galleon” (p. 147) that begins with Cahuilla men seeing a Spanish galleon and thinking it was a cloud.
As Orlov comes ashore, “Half the men from our village stood at the water’s edge. The rest were concealed among the rocks at the foot of the trail, ready to attack the intruders should they prove unfriendly” (p. 12).
In Country of the Sun, when the Spanish galleon is sighted, O’Dell writes “The Cahuillas hid themselves behind rocks along the shore” and their chief “cautioned his people to remain hidden” (p. 148).
When Captain Orlov comes ashore and begins negotiations with Karana’s father who is chief of the people at Ghalas-at, Karana is surprised that her father gives Orlov his seldom used and secret “real” name (Chowig) because “if people use your secret name it becomes worn out and loses its magic” (p. 13).
Look for: Names and their power.
“Karana” is the protagonists’ secret name. Her common name is “Won-a-pa-lei” which means “The Girl with the Long Black Hair” (p. 13).
The translation does not make sense, given the likelihood that all the girls would have long black hair.
The Aleuts come ashore, and Karana sees “a tall man with a yellow beard” (p. 12).
In Country of the Sun, Yuma Indians and a “bearded” Spanish captain come ashore (p. 148).
The night Orlov arrives, her father “warned everyone in the village of Ghalas-at against visiting the camp. “The Aleuts come from a country far to the north,” he said. “Their ways are not ours nor is their language” (p. 17).
From O’Dell’s Country of the Sun: The night the Spanish came ashore, “Darkness fell and the Cahuillas went silently back to their village and held council far into the night. The older men, who had heard tales of Spanish greed and ferocity, were in favor of abandoning the village and taking the women and children into the mountains. But the younger men, proud of their heritage as warriors and jealous of it, prevailed” (p. 148). They lay plans for an attack.
Each night, people in the tribe “counted the dead otter and thought of the beads and other things that each pelt meant” (p. 23).

Karana does not like the slaughter of the otters she regards as friends she would have fun watching as they played. “It was more fun than the thought of beads to wear around my neck” (p. 23).
This is O’Dell’s first mention of beads. Presumably, the negotiations that took place when Orlov landed included beads but this was not specified.

In Country of the Sun: The next morning, the Spanish gave each of the Indians “a handful of beaded trinkets” (p. 149).

The beads story works because it plays on the idea that Indians are not smart enough to know that their land and resources aren’t worth more than beads. Williams’ analysis of Dutch, Manhattan, beads is excellent.
Karana’s father sends young men “to the beach to build a canoe from a log which had drifted in from the sea” (p. 24).
Kroeber: Canoes “may have been burned from drift logs” (p. 634).
Orlov and his men prepare to leave without paying for the otter pelts. Chowig speaks to Orlov, who signals his men to bring a black chest to the island: “Captain Orlov raised the lid and pulled out several necklaces. There was little light in the sky, yet the beads sparkled as he turned them this way and that” (p. 27)
The archeological record (Kroeber/Meighan & Eberhart) does not list sparkly beads recovered on San Nicolas Island.


Items Karana has in a basket she carries onto the rescue ship: “three fine needles of whalebone, an awl for making holes, a good stone knife for scarping hides, two cooking pots, and a small box made from a shell with many earrings in it” (p. 42).
References to these items are in the historical record.
Karana’s sister, Ulape, “had two boxes of earrings, for she was vainer than I, and when she put them into her basket, she drew a thin mark with blue clay across her nose and cheekbones. The mark meant that she was unmarried” (p. 42).
An assumption that Karana and her people had the same ideas of beauty (vanity) that O’Dell did.
After she leaps off the boat and is back on shore, “The only thing that made me angry was that my beautiful skirt of yucca fibers, which I had worked on so long and carefully, was ruined” (p. 47).
An assumption that Karana and her people held the same ideas of beauty that O’Dell did.
Romo declares that, as son of Chowig, he is now Chief of Ghalas-at. Karana replies that before he can be the chief, he must become a man: “As is the custom, therefore, I will have to whip you with a switch of nettles and then tie you to a red ant hill” (p. 51).
O’Dell’s likely source for this is Kroeber’s Handbook of the Indians of California, Volume 2. On page 672, he describes “The Ant Ordeal” that may have been part of the “Toloache Initiation” of Luiseno boys: “The boys were laid on ant hills, or put into a hole containing ants. More of the insects were shaken over them from baskets in which they had been gathered. The sting or bite of the large ant smarts intensely, and the ordeal was a severe one, and rather doubtfully ameliorated when at the conclusion the ants were whipped from the body by nettles.”
Romo has “a strong of sea-elephant teeth which someone had left behind” (p. 50).
Meighan references sea-lion claws used as pendants.
Karana needs weapons: “The laws of Ghalas-at forbade the making of weapons by women of the tribe, so I went out to search for any that might have been left behind” (p. 58.)
Future research
Thinking the chest Orlov left may have an iron spearhead, Karana digs up the chest and finds it “filled with beads and bracelets and earrings of many colors” (p. 59). There are no spearheads in the chest.
Reference to beads draws on “primitive” (stupid) Indians who sold Manhattan for beads.
Karana “wondered what would happen to me if I went against the law of our tribe which forbade the making of weapons by women—if I did not think of it at all and made those things which I must have to protect myself” (p. 61).
Future research on weaponry.
“There was a legend among our people that the island had once been covered with tall trees. This was a long time ago, at the beginning of the world when Tumaiyowit and Mukat ruled. The two gods quarreled about many things. Tumaiyowit wished people to die. Mukat did not. Tumaiyowit angrily went down, down to another world under this world, taking his belongs with him, so people die because of him” (p. 82).
This story, from the Cupeno Indians, appears in Country of the Sun in “Revolt in the Mountains” as follows: “One of the most dramatic and current [myths of creation], as recounted by Salvador Cuevas, a Luiseno, has the world and everything in it created by the gods Tumaiyowit and Mukat. The gods quarreled and argued about their respective ages. They disagreed about many things. Tumaiyowit wished people to die. Mukat did not. Tumaiyowit went down, down to another world under this world, takig his belongings with him, so people die because he did” (p. 47). It is also in Kroeber’s Handbook, on page 692.
Karana uses several words that she says are in her language:
“Won-a-pa-lei” means “the girl with the long black hair” (p. 13)
“sai-sai” is a kind of fish (p. 85)
“rontu” means fox eyes (p. 105)
“zalwit” means pelican (p. 107)
“naip” means fish (p. 107)
“gnapan” is a thick leaved plant (p. 115)
“Mon-a-nee” means “Girl with the Large Eyes” (p. 160)
“Rontu-Aru” means “son of Rontu” (p. 169)
None of these words are in Kroeber or Hardacre.



Discussion

O’Dell had little to go on in creating the worldview of Karana and her people. To flesh out the story, he inserted his prior research on other California tribes, inserting their ways into the Nicoleno tribe, as though one peoples’ way of being was interchangeable with another. O’Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins prior to the development of multicultural literature and the attention to specificity, so it may be appropriate not to judge him too harshly for doing it. He also drew from popular stereotypes and clichés of American Indians, including the stories in which American Indians traded their land for a string of beads. An American embrace of stereotypes and clichés led to—and guaranteed—the success of the novel.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is a lot like most books and media about American Indians that give the audience the kind of Indians that America loves to love (Shanley, 1997). O’Dell gave us both: the savage ones (the Aleuts), and the gentle ones (Karana’s people). In a spirit of generosity, it is possible to justify why his story met with such success but how do we justify an embrace of it in the present time, when we know so much more about accuracy and authenticity of representation? And why do even our leading scholars fail to step away from the book? For example, in her introduction to the illustrated version, Zena Sutherland conflated the story of Juana Maria with the fictional story of Karana. She incorrectly refers to the Lost Woman as Karana, instead of Juana Maria. She says that she was twelve years old (Juana Maria was a mother, not a child), and that Karana’s brother died on the island (Juana Maria’s child died). The real person is lost in the embrace of the fiction character, Karana. Is sentiment in the way?

Conclusion

There is a fascination, a nostalgia, and a yearning for the romantic Indian and all that “Indian” means to people who think the best life anyone could have is one of the Indian of yesteryear, living in the pristine wilderness, where the weight of the world is not on your shoulders, where you can breath clean air, and drink clean water.

This nostalgia also captures the imaginings of the perfect childhood, but neither one is—or was—real. As such, Island of the Blue Dolphins is a perfect example of a book at the center of the canon of sentiment (Stevenson, 1997). Indeed, the canon of sentiment “exists to preserve—to preserve the childhood of those adults who create that canon and to preserve the affection those adults feel for the books within it” (p. 113). A good many adults imagine the childhood O'Dell described and the survival that Karana experienced. We like to think we could survive, too, and a story like this one lets us see how that could happen. 

Nonetheless, the story is lacking in its accuracy and suitability for informing children about American Indians. Will there come a time when there is a critical mass of gatekeepers rejecting works like this? I hope so. Sentiment is no excuse for ignorance.


References

Deloria, V. and DeMallie, R. J. Documents of American Indian Diplomacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Hardacre, Emma. (1971). The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. The California Indians: Source Book, edited by R. F. Heizer and M. A. Whipple. Berkeley: University of California Press, 272-281.

Kroeber, A.L. (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Lovelace, M. H. (1961). Scott O’Dell: Biographical note. The Horn Book Magazine, 37,
105-108.

Maher, S. N. (1992). Encountering others: The meeting of cultures in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Sing Down the Moon. Children’s Literature in Education, 23(4), 215-227.

Meighan, C.W. and Eberhart, H. (1953). Archaeological resources of San Nicolas Island, California. American Antiquity, 19(2), 109-125.

Nies, J. (1996). Native American History. New York: Ballantine Books.

O’Dell, S. (1957). Country of the Sun: Southern California, An Informal History and Guide. New York: Thomas E. Crowell Company.

O’Dell, S. (1961). Acceptance paper. The Horn Book Magazine, 37, 99-104.

O’Dell, S. (1978). Island of the Blue Dolphins. Trumpet Club Edition. New York: Dell Publishing Co.

O’Dell, S. (1990). Island of the Blue Dolphins. With illustrations by Ted Lewin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Payment, S. (2006). Scott O’Dell. New York: Rosen Pub. Group.

Pullar, G. L. (1996). Alutiiq. Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. Edited by Mary B. Davis.

Scott O’Dell (n.d.). More aboutScott. 

Shanley, K. W. (1997). The Indians America loves to love and read: American Indian identity and cultural appropriation. American Indian Quarterly, 21(4), 675-702.

Stevenson, D. (1997). Sentiment and significance: The impossibility of recovery in the children’s literature canon or, the drowning of The Water-babies. The Lion and the Unicorn, 21(1), 112.

Tarr, C. A. (1997). An unintentional system of gaps: A phenomenological reading of Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. Children’s Literature in Education, 28(2), 61-71.

Tarr, C. A. (2002). Apologizing for Scott O’Dell: Too little, too late. Children’s Literature, 30199-204.

Wesselhoeft, C. (2010). Scott O’Dell, ‘Blue Dolphins’ author, tells why he writes for children. Retrieved from http://adiosnirvana.com/?p=480

Wilkinson, C.F. and Biggs, E.R. (1977). The evolution of the termination policy. American Indian Law Review 5(1), 139-184.

__________________
Update, June 17, 2016: Bridgid Shannon, a colleague in children's literature, pointed me to the Lone Woman and Last Indians Digital Archives, a page maintained by the National Park Service. Do take a look! Lots of terrific info from a team led by Sara L. Schwebel.

Update, June 19, 2016: Lauren Peters, a fellow member of the American Indian Library Association, sent me her review of Island of the Blue Dolphins. She posted it in 2013: Defending the Aleuts in Island of the Blue Dolphins. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Debbie--have you seen Cammie McGovern's JUST MY LUCK?

A librarian in Nebraska wrote to ask me if I've seen Cammie McGovern's Just My Luck. Released on February 23, 2016 from HarperCollins, here's the synopsis:
Critically acclaimed author Cammie McGovern's middle grade debut is a powerful and heartwarming story that will appeal to readers who loved R. J. Palacio's Wonder, Ann M. Martin's Rain Reign, and Holly Sloan's Counting by 7s.
Fourth grade is not going at all how Benny Barrows hoped. He hasn't found a new best friend. He's still not a great bike rider—even though his brother George, who's autistic, can do tricks. And worst of all, he worries his dad's recent accident might be all his fault. Benny tries to take his mom's advice and focus on helping others, and to take things one step at a time. But when his dad ends up in the hospital again, Benny doesn't know how he and his family will overcome all the bad luck that life seems to have thrown their way.
Just My Luck is a deeply moving and rewarding novel about a down-on-his-luck boy whose caring heart ultimately helps him find the strength to cope with tragedy and realize how much he truly has to offer his friends and family.

Just My Luck, the librarian wrote, references Indian in the Cupboard. There's a copy in my local library. I'll pick it up, read it, and be back with a review.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

A Response to John Smelcer's Statements about Me (Debbie Reese)

Back in 2008, I started reading John Smelcer's The Trap. I read only a few pages, and stopped reading, because those opening pages reminded me of my childhood, living with my grandmother. I shared those memories and immediately heard from people in Alaska, that Smelcer is not Native.

At a Native Studies conference a few months later, I learned a lot more about Smelcer's claims to Native identity. As I came to know, the mere mention of his name raises the ire of Native and non-Native scholars who work in Native literatures. People have concerns about his claims to Native identity, and concerns about his writing, too.

Here's one example specific to his writing.

In March of 2016, colleagues in Native literature began posting on social media about two poems by Smelcer, published online at The Kenyon Review. Some wrote to the editor, David Lynn. The two poems were subsequently removed. They were replaced with a statement said that they were being removed because they had already been published elsewhere, which is against the Review's policy. A few days later, that statement was gone. David Lynn had a new one up:
In the Spring issue of KROnline, we published two poems by John Smelcer, “Smoke Signal” and “Indian Blues.” I appreciate the many readers who have contacted us to point out that these poems contained damaging stereotypes of Native people. I deeply regret the manifest distress this has caused and take full responsibility. We will continue to welcome—and to seek actively—Native voices, and those of other underrepresented communities, to all Kenyon Review publications.
Digging in a bit, I learned that those two poems are in Smelcer's Indian Giver. When I looked up that book, I saw that it--like all of Smelcer's other books--had glowing praise from very prominent people. This was something I'd noticed back in 2008. Among the people Smelcer lists as having praised or collaborated with him are John Updike, Carl Sagan, Noam Chomsky, Allen Ginsberg, Chinua Achebe, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.D. Salinger, Lucille Clifton, the Dalai Lama, and Jack Zipes.

In the case of children's literature scholar Jack Zipes, I looked up the item Smelcer says he co-wrote with Zipes. I wrote to Zipes, too, to ask about the co-written item, and it turns out, Zipes answered a series of questions Smelcer sent to him by email. In his presentation of that interview, however, Smelcer puts it forth as a piece of co-writing. On his website, he wrote:
With Jack Zipes, John co-authored "The Story Telling Instinct: Why Fairy Tales Stick
I've interviewed people before for articles but would not characterize the product as a "co-authored" item. Have you seen that done before?

Recently, John Smelcer wrote about me at his website, saying several things that are not true. The document at his site is 23 pages in length. The first 21 pages are his account, going back to 1994, when his identity was first questioned at the University of Alaska. As you'll see, Smelcer offers a great many letters and documents that suggest he is Native by birth. Some of this is new. In the past he has said he is adopted, as Diane Chen of School Library Journal found in 2009. In her review of The Great Death, she wrote:
When I read the author’s website, I learned he listened to the stories of this time and place as told by his adopted grandmother and her sister. 
When I first encountered John Smelcer's work in 2008, the man who adopted him (Charlie Smelcer) told me that Smelcer is not Native by birth. All in all, it is very confusing. Here's the link to the page where he writes about his identity: John Smelcer's Ethnicity & the University of Alaska Anchorage. (Note: I have saved a pdf of the page I saw on June 9th, 2016.)

Here are screen shots of the last two pages of the 23 page document, followed by direct quotes from the screen shots, and my response to them.






(1)
Smelcer wrote: "You’d think the attacks would end now, but a woman named Debbie Reese continues to criticize me on the Internet, saying that I have no business writing books about Alaska Natives or Native Americans, not even about my own grandmother, who implored me for years to write my novel, The Great Death, about a pandemic that devastated Native communities all across Alaska nearly a century ago, including my own tribe."

My response to: I have never said that John Smelcer has no business writing books about Alaska Natives or Native Americans, or his grandmother. With this blog post, I ask Smelcer to provide evidence for that statement.

(2)
Smelcer wrote: "In her blog, this dishonest woman accused me of “culturally appropriating” the Native words and phrases I used in the novel [The Great Death], purposefully concealing from readers the fact that I speak Ahtna fluently, am the only tribal member who can write in it, and that I published a dictionary of the language in 1998 (foreword by Noam Chomsky), a fact easily checked on my website, which was listed on the back of the book as well as on the audiobook."

My response: I have not reviewed The Great Death at my blog or elsewhere. I did not say Smelcer was "culturally appropriating" the Native words and phrases he used in the novel. I did not purposefully conceal from readers that Smelcer speaks Ahtna fluently, or that he is the only tribal member who can write it, or that he published a dictionary of the language. With this blog post, I ask Smelcer to provide evidence for that statement.

(3)
Smelcer wrote: "In April 2016, she posted a review of my poetry book Indian Giver on amazon.com in which she admitted that she hadn’t seen or read the book yet, but she gave it a one-star rating nonetheless (all other reviews by people who actually read the book gave it five stars). She included in her byline that she’s a member of the American Library Association. I’m certain the ALA doesn’t condone censuring books before they’ve even been read."

My response: In April of 2016, I posted a comment at Amazon, on the page for Smelcer's Indian Giver. The page had incorrect information in the "About the Author" section, that said (note, specifically the text I put in bold):
The Great Death was short-listed for the 2011 William Allen White Award, and nominated for the National Book Award, the BookTrust Prize (England), and the American Library Association’s Award for American Indian YA Literature. 
To submit a comment, Amazon's interface requires that you give the item for which you are commenting a star (or 5 stars). I gave it one star so that I could say: 
Please note an error in the "About the Author" section and the "Awards" section of this page.
The American Library Association does not have an award for American Indian Young Adult Literature.
When I receive a copy of Smelcer's book, I will update this note with a review of the book itself.
Debbie Reese, Member, America Library Association
Below is a screen capture of my comment. As I believe my comment shows, Smelcer is misrepresenting my words.




(4)
Smelcer wrote: She even emailed the 22-year-old newspaper story to folks who wrote blurbs for the book encouraging them to retract their praise and to shun me. One of the other deceits she and her friends use often is to say that my writing “perpetuates stereotypes about American Indians” to discourage librarians from ordering my books. Again, she conceals the fact that the books include endorsements by Native American writers, historians, and scholars who praise the contents.

My response: On the Amazon page for Indian Giver, I saw that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was being quoted as having said Smelcer is "One of our most brilliant poets." I correspond with her frequently, particularly of late because Jean Mendoza and I will be adapting her Indigenous People's History of the United States for young adult readers. Given my correspondence with her, I could verify that blurb. I asked her about him and I did send the newspaper articles to her. Smelcer says I sent these articles to others who wrote blurbs. With this blog post, I ask Smelcer to provide evidence for what he is saying. 

I wrote to Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz to ask her about it. She told me she had been introduced to him and that he told her he is Native. Later he sent her the draft of Indian Giver. In good faith, she provided him with a blurb that is being used to market that book, but her words are also on the cover of Stealing Indians. She didn't read Stealing Indians. It strikes me as disingenuous for Smelcer to use her words for one book to praise a different one, and his doing that makes me wonder about all the blurbs on all the other books. Are they legitimate? Or is Smelcer dropping the names and words of all those people here and there to give him credibility? For most of them, we can't find out because they're deceased. Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz has written to Smelcer, asking that he not use her words to promote his work. He is ignoring her. She has also written to his publisher, to no avail. I did not encourage Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz to retract her praise or to shun him. 

I have not said Smelcer stereotypes American Indians. In fact, because I found the controversy over his identity so unsettling in 2009, I did not finish The Trap and did not read subsequent books. I am currently reading his latest young adult book, Stealing Indians, and will post a review when I finish writing it. 

(5)
Smelcer wrote: "In early 2008, I had a candid telephone conversation with Debbie Reese, offering to provide her many of the documents presented in this article. She told me flatly that “she didn’t care what I sent her, that nothing would change her opinion, and that she planned to destroy me and make sure that no one would ever publish my writing again.”

My response: I have never spoken with John Smelcer, in person or on the telephone. I never said, to anyone, that I was going to destroy John Smelcer and make sure that no one would ever publish his writing again. 

(6)
Smelcer wrote: "Friends who have contacted her on my behalf have reported similar responses."

My response: I received a letter from Larry Vienneau much like the one in Smelcer's document, but I did not respond to it.

(7)
 I don’t understand her obsession with me. She heartlessly obstructs my sole means of providing for my family and for my daughter’s future. How many emerging Native voices has she silenced over the years? How many deserving books have been disregarded by the industry because of her? There are over 500 tribes in America. In no way does she represent or speak for all Native Americans. She is not even a spokesperson for her own tribe. If you are in the publishing industry—a librarian or magazine or journal editor or a literary prize committee member—please stop empowering this bully.

My response: I am not obsessed with Smelcer. I am a scholar in children's literature. As such, I study children's books about Native peoples. People in the children's literature community know my work, and that I advocate for Native writers. As a critic, I review children's books, drawing from print resources, and from colleagues in Native Studies, too. I do not purport to speak for all Native Americans. I am not a spokesperson for my tribe and never said that I was. Again, I am a scholar in children's literature. I stand by my work, and when my review of Smelcer's Stealing Indians is ready, I will stand by it, too. 

Update, June 10, late afternoon

Yesterday evening on Twitter, John Smelcer tweeted a link to a letter he says was written by Lee Francis, III, saying, "Read what Lee Francis, founder of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers said about bullies like Debbie Reese." Here's a screen capture of that tweet: 



Earlier today, Kimberly Gail Wieser of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, posted the following statement to Wordcraft's page at Facebook. As you will see, she did not name the writer. In asking permission to share it, I said I was going to use his name. She said that was fine.
For more than 20 years, Wordcraft Circle has been supporting the work and words of Native writers and storytellers throughout the world. During that time, Wordcraft has had an open policy regarding Indigenous identity. but we have never served to substantiate nor deny anyone's claims. Yesterday, it came to our attention that a writer was using the name and alleged personal communications of our late founder Dr. Lee Francis III to substantiate claims of identity. Identity is between an individual and any sovereign nation with which he or she claims a relationship. We have also always maintained and continue to maintain a neutral stance in disagreements between writers. We are disheartened by this conflict and all other conflicts like this we have seen in the field. We are greatly disappointed by this use of our late founder's name to substantiate malicious attacks and by the general atmosphere of such disagreements in the field. Writers who engage in this sort of behavior will not find themselves welcome in our organization.
This morning, Smelcer tweeted that "Kirkus and other industry book review leaders say they would never publish a review of my books by Debbie Reese. The jig is up!" Here's a screen capture:


His words suggest that he spoke to them. I asked Roger Sutton at Horn Book and Kiera Parrot at School Library Journal. Neither has spoken to Smelcer. I am waiting to hear from Vicky Smith.

A few minutes ago, Smelcer tweeted "My new book is about love, compassion & mercy. Out of love, I forgive Debbie Reese for bullying me for 10 years:" (followed by a link to the book).

Sounds more like he's using his attacks on me to now promote his new book. The twists and turns of interactions with him are unpredictable.

Update, June 10, early evening

With his permission, I am sharing a response from Lee Francis (son of Lee Francis III):
Good morning friends! In response to John Smelcer's tweet with a letter from my father (which is no longer available online but not due to any discourse on my part), I will make the following points:
1) I find it distressing that John would use a personal communication with my father to justify the fight in which he has chosen to engage Debbie Reese. Many of you knew my father's personal views on Identity Politics but he would never have consented to playing the Straw Man for defensive posturing in a digital media fight.
2) Both myself and others have read the "communication" and doubt the veracity of the document. My father was very precise in his language and would not have made several of the spelling mistakes that are (were) present in the document.
3) My father would not have been a part of any fight which would have turned to name-calling and half truths, especially against a Pueblo woman.
4) Certainly my father took on many battles about identity for many folks (some a part of this group) but his role as the National Director of Wordcraft Circle should not be considered an endorsement of any member's claims on heritage or identity.
5) I know my father had many flaws and certainly some inconsistencies, but using his words to further name calling and attacks is something I find incredibly offensive as his son.

Update, June 11, early morning

Smelcer added his tweet about Kirkus (see screen capture above) to his 23-page document. He added "or any of her friends" to it. He said: "Because of her animosity and inability to be impartial, Kirkus and other book review industry leaders stated in June 2016 that they would never publish a review of my work by Debbie Reese or any of her friends." Here's a screen capture:





In conclusion...

I find this entire saga frustrating. In 2007, when I first received emails telling me Smelcer is not Native, I had a choice to make: (1) Delete that blog post entirely and ignore the voluminous discussions in Native circles about Smelcer's claims, or (2) continue to write about it for the sake of furthering what people know about claims to Native identity? I obviously opted for the latter.

As best as I can figure out, Smelcer was born white, was adopted by Charlie Smelcer who was Ahtna (he is deceased), and due to the Alaska Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, John Smelcer is able to say that he is Native (see this language in the Consent to Appointment as Custodian of an Inter Vivos Gift of Stock for a Minor Child: "I understand that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) defines "Native" as... [...] an adoptee of a Native or of a descendant of a Native whose adoption occurred prior to his or her age of majority").

With that Act, John Smelcer was able to get a document from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that says he is 1/4 Native. Many Native people think it is misleading for him to say he is 1/4 Native because it implies he is Native by birth, when he is not.

I think Smelcer clouds the issue with the numerous documents he puts forth, and he clouds the issue in his latest young adult novel, too. In the Epilogue to Stealing Indians, he writes this about Lucy, one of the characters:
Lucy married white men, three times, her five half-breed children marrying whites as well, until she no longer saw herself or her mother in the faces of her grandchildren or great grand-children, until one day when she was very old, one of her grandsons with light hair and blue eyes--one of the only ones left who could still recite the old myths and speak her old language--would tell her stories... Including this one. 
That tells me that the grandson is Smelcer himself. It is written in a way that tells us he has light hair and blue eyes because his grandmother and her children married white people. It tells us that he is Native, by birth, which isn't true. The opening to the book says that "This story is a work of fiction. Every word is true." I do not know what to do with those two sentences. The first one can be used to dismiss concerns with accuracy, but what are we to make of the second one?

If this entire saga was limited to questions about his identity, I might come to his defense because I believe, as I've said many times on AICL and in lectures, that the sovereignty of Native Nations means that they determine who their citizens or members are. However! There are so many other questions about Smelcer and what he says.

Last night, I noticed that on his webpage about his The Gospel of Simon, due out in September of this year, he includes a blurb from Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006. His Indian Giver has a blurb from Howard Zinn, who died in 2010. Stealing Indians, due out in August, has a blurb from Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013. All these books are published by Leapfrog Press. I would love to see the letters these individuals wrote. I wonder if Leapfrog has copies of them. I'll write and ask.

On his website, Smelcer lists all manner of prizes and distinctions he's received. I would love it if he'd provide links to them. He holds a PhD from Binghamton. That is a research doctorate, which means he knows how to properly cite and reference such things. I wish he would.

Naomi Caldwell, David Ongly and myself (we're all members of the American Indian Library Association; Naomi and David are former presidents of the association) are, in fairness to Smelcer, trying to find support for what he says, but thus far in our research, we are unable to verify much of what he claims. One example:

On his website, Smelcer wrote: "The American Library Association's YALSA named John Smelcer's mountain climbing novel, Savage Mountain, as one of the greatest survival stories of all time, alongside Into Thin Air, Unbroken, Hatchet, and A Perfect Storm. (Statement retrieved from Smelcer’s website on May 19, 2016.)
I found that YALSA’s “The Hub” published Booklist: Survival Stories on September 22, 2015. The opening paragraph is:
For readers looking for action-packed survival stories in real life situations, here’s a selection of fiction and nonfiction about struggles to live through harrowing condition at sea, in the mountains, and in the wilderness.


That paragraph is followed by book reviews. The first one is a review of Roland Smith’s Peak and that review ends with “other books about survival in the mountains” which is a list of four books: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read, Savage Mountain by John E. Smelcer, and Death Mountain by Sherry Shahan. 

There is no text on that page that calls Smelcer’s book "one of the greatest survival stories of all time." It is, I think, a "half truth" of the sort that Lee Francis referred to above in his statement.

Smelcer characterizes me as a cyberbully who has bullied him for 10 years. I understand why he feels that way, but as I noted above, he has a research doctorate. He knows how to cite material. He could clear up all these half-truths that are undermining his credibility if he'd employ what he learned at Binghamton. If he does so, I'll be back to direct AICL's readers to them. 

Note (June 12, 2016): One thing I do when writing my critical analyses is read history and legal writings related to the book/author. Smelcer's legal claim to Native identity led me to an article that I'll be studying: Indian Country and Inherent Tribal Authority: Will They Survive ANCSA? by Professor of Law Marilyn J. Ward Ford, published in 1997 in the Alaska Law Review. Ford provides historical background for the law by which it became possible for Smelcer to own shares in an Alaska Native corporation, and to say, legally, that he is Native.