NATIVE AMERICANS IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, John C. Stott, Oryx Press, 4041 North Central Indian School Road, Phoenix, AZ 85012; 800-279-4663. 1995 paperback, 239 pages, indexes. $24.95. 0-89774-782-8
The author, a professor of children's literature at University of Toronto, has written a book that is aimed at teachers from elementary picture-book-age readers through junior high school. His audience is non-Native teachers at schools -- Canadian and U.S. -- whose populations are entirely or mainly non-Native.
Short reviews summarize themes and content of several hundred children's books, U.S. and Canadian are grouped at the end of each thematically-organized chapter. All but a handful of the books discussed are either works of fairly recent contemporary fiction or legends -- a few adult collections but mostly those retold as children's stories. The overwhelming majority of the books discussed and reviewed are by non-Native authors.
At the end of Stott's book is a long appendix setting out a program for incorporating Native stories into the Language Arts program. Stott gives no attention to Indian history or current affairs (because he says that's social studies). Similarly, the efforts of authors like Abenaki Joseph Bruchac (who writes an enthusiastic foreward to the book) to relate "nature stories and legends" to a kind of science instruction that is more holistic and presents a world view in which human beings are one part of a web of existence, are treated as if they were just more stories for the language arts program. In science, though, the stories are part of a proposed alternative to a powerful way -- western science and technology -- of knowing, altering, and being in the world.
Stott specifically warns of a "danger of realistic stories becoming thinly disguised social studies texts showing the way little Native boys or girls from specific cultures do or used to live." No danger of that here. Realism is actively avoided, denied, hidden.
The lesson plans are for grades 3 through 9, in order of an age- determined complexity of objectives or difficulty of the listed readings. (Elsewhere, picture books for younger children are extensively discussed and reviewed.) It's a pretty good program -- many teachers will be pleased with the neatly-outlined objectives and clear, specific lesson plans set forth in the Appendix. They will easily be able to adapt the forms to use with other books than the ones used there. Let's take a look at these units by the numbers. What's the proportion of Native authors studied? I express this as a ratio (any book by or retold by an Indian writer first, books by all writers second) for each unit, followed by overall percentages:
ARCTIC FOOD ON ICE (early elementary) -- 1 (native): 4
(total). Non-native authors: 75%.
Total books for these study units: 33. Total Indian authors: 3. Total non-Indian authors: 30. Percent Indian authors: 9.09%. Percent non-Indian authors: 90.91%.
A much worse ratio prevails in the main portion of Stott's book, where a great many children's books are reviewed. Books by Indian authors discussed or reviewed there are rare. They are usually discussed separately from the long groups of reviews ending each chapter, each of which usually contains suggestions for classroom activities or guided discussion. By-Indian-authors books are considered as having been written "by Indian educators or authors for the education of children of their own culture." Though discussed as part of what Stott calls a "Renaissance" among Indian people, these books are not part of the lesson plans, suggestions for classroom teaching about them aren't given, etc. Most of these books will be ignored by non-Indian teachers and schools, therefore.
It's generally true most of them were written for Indian youth. But the fact that all these books are for sale through a variety of hard-to-find makeshifts, (rather than major publishers, with their 800 phone lines, expensive, glamorous catalogs, school discounts and purchase order terms) indicates they might hope to educate others. Some Indian authors, just like white ones, hope (futilely, as the above numeric ratios and percentages demonstrate) to make a living from their writings. Those numbers demonstrate who controls the market, and Stott helps those numbers right along.
A unit on "Brave Hunters: Inuit legends retold by James Houston" using 3 books by (non-Inuit) Houston for young teens is typical. Objectives are:
"1. To see how an author presents similar themes, character types and conflicts in many of his stories.
"2. To examine in detail the differences in two very similar stories.
"3. To study the precariousness of traditional Inuit life, [dangers] which could cause starvation and death.
"4. To notice how the young heroes in each book resolve the conflicts that face them."
Although Stott is aware that stories in traditional Native cultures have many functions, he analyzes almost all the books he reviews from the western viewpoint: a single "hero" or central character who is in some kind of conflict, usually with natural forces. He (or occasionally she) overcomes the obstacles and grows toward maturity through this resolution, solving external problems or character weaknesses, finding love or a place in society or family. Happy endings are the norm.
By contrast, Canadian Ojibwe anthropologist and writer Basil Johnston holds that most traditional teaching stories have (within their own culture) "4 levels of meaning: enjoyment, moral teaching, philosophic, and metaphysical," levels which are gradually learned as children mature and often hear the stories -- expanded versions -- in the community's social and ceremonial settings, and come to make those broader levels parts of their lives (not just lessons in school). Values, which are lived by not just piously chanted, mumbled, or scribbled on quizzes, are fundamental, but in schools today, such education is anathema. Education is supposed to be value-free, culture-neutral. In fact the values of the dominant society, which are shaped by the forces of its political and economic structures, are inculcated by this false neutrality.
In the above mini-unit, Stott chooses all the Inuit stories by a non-Native writer. At the very beginning of the book he tells of what must have been a pretty embarrassing school presentation he once gave, where he ran that compare and contrast schema by the kids on one of the above books by Houston and on Harpoon of the Hunter, "the first novel ever written by an Inuit". He tells the kids that the main point of both books is that "to survive, the individual in each story must fall back upon the physical and spiritual resources of his culture."
The kids point out that in Markoosie's Inuit book, Kamik doesn't survive. He kills himself: drives his harpoon into his throat. "It was then I realized my copy ended on page 68, it had been bound without the last pages." Despite the missing ending, thoroughly conditioned by his western values, Stott had intuited that the incomplete book portended Kamik's happy and successful return to his village -- where all his family has been wiped out through starvation, white-introduced diseases and vices, though Stott never tells us that. (Stott never reviews this book that so embarrassed him, he doesn't even mention the publisher, explain how it might be used in school lessons, etc. He not only doesn't review the book, he doesn't even cite it in any of his bibliographies.)
The kids don't like it, this ending in death, suicide. Kamik chooses to join his dead family voluntarily, once natural events have carried him to a likely death on the sea ice anyway. He drives his harpoon into his throat, dies. The white kids are outraged. They think stories shouldn't end that way. "Markoosie's complete story simply did not fit my interpretation; Inuit stories do not follow western cultural pat- terns." So he's gonna spare teachers from such an embar- rassment by making sure that non-Inuit Houston (whose brave hunters all survive and don't do bloody violence on themselves or anyone else) are studied in detail. I will return to this business about how the Inuit stories allegedly don't fit the western pattern - - a mystification and self-justification, because Markoosie's novel is about the death of traditional Inuit life, killed by the invaders. Kamik has nothing to live for; his people are dead and all that he loves, including his life as a harpooner, is dying. There's no big cultural mystification there; what there is is reality, history, "dangerous realism that belongs in social studies" (or not in language arts, anyway).
Near the beginning of his book, Stott analyzes how a textbook, several legends, and a very popular children's novel embody various forms of bias. The Sedna story actually presents some of the problems in a nutshell: it's bloody and frightening, when Sedna is thrown overboard by her father and he chops her fingers off as she clings to the kayak. Turning into an undersea spirit, she's unfriendly and vindictive to humanity, who betrayed her. The kids' version omits the horribleness, minimizes the betrayals and makes her a nice kindly undersea goddess, helping the people.
Stott thinks this entirely misrepresents the culture, the kid version, and that's certainly right, but later on, in many of the reviews of kid-version myths, he likes that kind of misrepresen- tation just fine. Trickster stories are an example. A great many of those have elements of violence, deceit, betrayal, sexuality, scatology, gross-outs of various sorts. These are invariably omitted from children's stories. Stott describes these omissions as of "off-color" or "offensive" material, and thinks it's a necessity in order to avoid "offending adults who buy books."
Perhaps so, but it then does mean that "Native cul- ture" cannot be conveyed through children's literature, if "offensive" aspects are always omitted, a problem Stott seemingly doesn't want to tackle. He doesn't even want to tackle "the first novel by an Inuit" which he so badly misunderstood years ago. Writing as an adult, to other adults, he presents several fairly subtle and interesting analyses of mature themes in mythology, and of what contemporary Indian novelists are doing. But that doesn't carry over to children's books.
Because this is "language arts" not "social studies", and dangerous realism is banned, we don't (and children won't) see much of important aspects of Indian life today (as yesterday) which come from politics and economics, not "culture, legends and spirituality." Land is still being taken, air and water are being polluted and contaminated, and various forms of financial and political corruption dominate and warp many aspects of tribal life. One of the biggest "conflicts" for Native youth, today as in the more distant past, is the continued forceful impingements of the dominant white societies -- from dam-drowning, to military overflights that destroy game to mining to the vast military genocides being carried out in Central America.
Such stories are written occasionally, but if they are too close to the bone of the white reader, too realistic, they will find no commercial publishers, no distribution except in hard-to-find places. They don't fit at all into any of the neat compare and contrast, see how character mood, and theme are developed "language arts" lessons that Stott lays out. If Hydro- Quebec (rather than bears or one lone mean nasty racist villain) is story's opposition for a native community and its youth, that story won't get into the Canadian curriculum and probably not in the U.S. either.
In September of 1995 -- when this book was already in press - Nick George, a 14-year-old Ojibwe youth who might otherwise have been in some class studying a miscellany of legends in language arts was shot in the back at Ipperwash Park by the Provincial Police. Dudley George, his uncle,was shot and killd there and several others, adults and an elder, were badly beaten.
Now there's a child, or young man, whose story won't get into these language arts books and classes. It doesn't have a happy ending. He doesn't have some kind of misty spiritual experience that reconciles him with the world and his community. No mythic themes there, trickster ambiguities, mediations. They shot him in the back, the provincial police, they killed his uncle. White kids wouldn't care for the way that story ends. The kind of dangerous reality of how Indian people really live (and die) that Stott thinks doesn't belong in language arts .
The Ipperwash confrontation occurred because a piece of the small Stoney Point Ojibwe Reserve's land, with access to a nice beach where tourists like to come, was taken recently by the government from the Stoney Point Reserve and made into a public park. During that same summer and fall, many Indian people occupied a small area of sacred land around Gustafsen Lake, surrounded by an army of RCMP. The issue here was a com- bination of opposition to logging and to cattle wandering on a site ceremonially sacred to the Shuswap people since time immemorial. A young native girl was one of those shot here, though she survived it; there seem to have been no deaths there. Outcome of the trials of elders is not known. Jailing of their lawyer for continuing legal demands that this be taken before the Queen, on an existing British legal precedent, not tried in courts of the province which refused to make treaties defining Native lands rights, is not a promising development.
A few years ago, the Gitksan and Wetsu'weken peoples, BC interior tribes, mounted -- at great cost to themselves -- a long trial, where they tried to protect a big tract of their remote interior woodlands -- sacred and governed by an elaborate system of clan leadership whose main responsibilities are to each area of the land itself. At the end, the judge ruled that the ancient civilization and law presented in his court did not exist, that pre-contact life had been "nasty, brutish and short" for the Native people, and that they had no rights to the land, it was taken for commer- cial use. The long struggle of the Cree, fighting the huge James Bay project, where governmental corruption is providing tax- financing and purchase below cost of electrical power to increase the profits of huge private corporations who are members of the exploitation consortium has not ended. These examples are all from very recent times and drawn from the country -- Canada -- where Stott's comfortable professorate is located. In the U.S. are many similar situations.
The struggle for survival as ancient cultures, as Native peoples with distinct and living identities is rooted in the land. It is not a free-floating culture of unrooted values, of occasional chanting, storytelling, colorful ceremonies that can even contribute to producing tourist income (tourists are often a very disruptive force in themselves). Thus the adversaries that Native youth must learn to combat and gain survival for their people over are not polar bears, ice storms, or desert wildernesses, that is, they are not forces of nature, either impersonal or personified by myth. The forces are the political economies of white society. Cultural values of survival have been conditioned by centuries of limited survival in the face of these adversarial forces.
Stott is blind to this. Liberals think everything political is about feelings. If white youth would just grow up with good, instead of bad, feelings toward Indians, everything will be just fine. Will drowned lands reemerge? Will the Canadian government plans to develop north sea oil and other assets of the new Nunavut province halt? Will the multinational corporations which control almost everything and are driven only by profit and expansion motives somehow also have a change of heart, different feelings? Corporations are artificial persons, figments created by a law that serves them. They don't have feelings or hearts, they have balance sheets, executives, and shareholders.
Stott cannot deal with the fact that Kamik, in that "first book written by an Inuit author" which makes its brief introductory appearance only as an example of how little he knew, killed himself because he does not want to live in the diminished and corrupt world the invaders have imposed on his people, and he sees no way he can oppose that invasion. In remarking that "Inuit stories do not follow western cultural patterns," Stott is simply concealing (and helping white youth to conceal) that this story is about invasion, destruction, exploitation, and Kamik's final rejection of the remaining diminished life. This is a realistic story, one individually-focussed story on the destruction of a people. Suicide is the greatest cause of death among Indian teenagers, whose suicide rate exceeds that of every other race. By avoiding "the dangers of realism" and history, Stott conceals this first from himself, next from teacher-readers, and finally from non-Indian youth.
The book Harpoon of the Hunter is in many libraries. It was translated from the Inuit language in which Markoosie wrote it, and illustrated by Inuit artist Germaine Armaktauyoh. Published by McGill-Queens University Press in 1970, ISBN 77350- 102-9.
An example of the kind of misunderstanding teachers guidd by Stott will continue to transmit is to be found in one of the stories discussed in the "trickster" chapter, Mai'i [Coyote] and Cousin Horned Toad, written and illustrated by Navajo Shonto Begay. Greedy Coyote covets the gardens of reverent, traditional little Horned Toad, and eventually swallows the peaceful little farmer. H gets a nasty bellyache from this, and Horned Toad eventually is able to emerge from his mouth. Unlike the more authentic traditional versions, Horned Toad doesn't make his way out through Coyote's anus, killing him in the process of traversing the guts, nor does he gain his lumpy skin from contents of the stomach and guts incorporated into his own hide. According to Stott, this story is partly about "how children should learn to conduct themselves properly" in the Navajo cultural context (don't be greedy, don't drop in and eat up your relatives).
Perhaps the story once had only those functions, but by the time anthros collected it, Coyote had become a metaphor for white society. The story tells children there is a prospect of survival, if the greedy whites, who want to swallow even the small remnants of Native people and lands can somehow be tricked. Coyote is not a trickster for Navajo people, he is an entirely malign spirit. The modern version of the trick is to convince the whites that the natives, living on charity and welfare, swallowed in Coyote's guts, really like that, lazy toads that they are. Coyote may respond by disgorging -- allowing the exercise of -- some of the recently-swallowed sovereignty, and the people may be able that way to survive. For example, economic survival might come through the profits of the Horned-Toad Casino-Garden, maybe.
Begay ends by saying that modern Navajo people, encountering a horned toad, place it over their hearts; "We believe it gives strength of heart and mind." That's a kind of political instruction, about survival in the belly of the beast, that has swallowed your people and most of your land, not just a little moralizing about how it's Not Nice to be greedy and eat up your neighbor, so as to obtain his land and gardens.
Stott definitely doesn't get it. Neither will non-Indian teachers and non-Indian kids. There are all kinds of these little "stories" which may have very old roots from a time when the cultures were complete and in harmony with a world that wasn't trying to destroy them and take their land. But have now been modified into a method -- a kind of a code -- for transmitting vital survival information, which of course is about resistance to being actually digested, once swallowed (as all the indigenous peoples have been).
Stott rightly calls it a "danger" if white youth learns these realistic stories, these lessons of real history which is continuing to occur right now. For then if their sympathies are enlisted, their ideas and idealisms might focus on actual change, focus effectively, not romantically. They might become reliable political allies. To avoid these dangers, Stott presents a book of escapism: Language arts studies that avoid the "danger" of realism in history. He presents a large array of books by non-authors that foster human understanding on a person-to-person level that has no meaning in the politics or the economics of the vast forces that actually control our world.
I do recommend Stott's book for libraries, but I think teachers and librarians should read all book reviews side-by-side with those presented in THROUGH INDIAN EYES, when -- hopefully -- their new edition will come out. In many, perhaps most, instances, you will find a very different perspective. I don't always agree with the TIE reviewers but their cultural accuracy analysis is a needed corrective to Stott's very slick often persuasive short reviews. Aside from books that have become notorious (largely because of TIE and the American Indian Library Association), Stott seemingly thinks just about every children's book ever published that has Indians as a subject is good, is culturally accurate, etc. Except for one initial chapter there are no pans, no negative recommendations at all. Of the several books discussed in the chapter "The Way it Wasn't: Stereotyps and Misreprsentations" include an antique series that won't be encountered, and a biography, a kind of literature Stott himself dliberately excludes from his concept of literature. That leaves 2 books: on of them a 1973 myth-retold, the other one of the very popular, prizewinning "Indian in the Cupboard" series (which doesn't even mention the recent popular Disney film made of it).
Then there is the near-absence of Indian authors. The disproportion -- authors 91% non-Indian -- for the lesson plans is worse for the main body of the book its reviews. Although poetry - - songs -- is an important aspect of language arts, and is often the best way to get little children writing, or older ones who have literacy difficulties, no native poetry collections are included or treated in the lesson plans. No biography is included. No history. No art (except that of the book illustrators). Finally, by excluding - - with remarks about dangerous realism -- history, gography, conomics, Stott makes it impossible for the teacher to present literary works (contemporary children's fiction, poetry, biographies, myths) in context. In not one of the lesson plans does he so much as suggest looking at a map. Literature of a people just cannot be represented in the absence of their history. There is no suggestion that teachers should seek out local natives to make class presentations.
Since the last few hundred years of Native history has consisted of near-extinction and heavy cultural attack by invading whites, that history is bound to affect and does affect Native literature written or oral. There are stories of loss, pain, anger, and stories of trickery to survive, for example. Many, perhaps all, myths that are still told with relish in traditional circles, have that aspect.
Stott's inability -- unwillingness -- to see this is symbolized by his actual omission of the Inuit novel that caused him embar- rassment because the main character kills himself at the end. This is a realistic novel with a realistic (not happy) ending, so Stott waffles off onto some mysterious Inuit cultural values he claims are incomprehensible to westerners and ignores this book except for its anecdotal use in his introduction. That's real life intruding into his comfortable professorate, and lecture circuit gig where the white man is once again explaining Indians to other whites. Hey, real life belongs in social studies, not language arts. It seems as little likely to creep in there as it has here.
From the viewpoint of Native peoples, protection of the remaining land base, which is constantly under attack in both the U.S. and Canada, is the paramount fact for cultural and physical survival. It is possible that a generation of schoolchildren who had a better understanding of this aspect of our history -- of the fact that attacks are still going on -- might form empathies or sym- pathies to provide more dependable, less romantic allies. Nothing in Stott's approach will promote this. It is a book by a white person, who examines books about Indians that are almost entirely by white authors and illustrators, in a vacuum of history and complete absence of current social context. Reviewed by Paula Giese
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Last Updated: Tuesday, May 14, 1996 - 6:46:40 PM