THROUGH INDIAN EYES: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN, Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale, New Society Publishers, 4527 Springfield Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19143, 800-333-9093; $3 plus price of book for mail orders. 3rd edition, 1992, 312 pages, reviews, articles, lists, bibliographies, index, $24.95 paper, $49.95 hardcover. 0-86571-213-1; Can 1--55092-165-7. Also available from Oyate (see below).
THROUGH INDIAN EYES: HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE, Seale and Slapin, New Society Publishers, checklist for spotting anti-(Indian biases in children's books, extracted from the main volume (above) 32 pages, paper, $7.95. Also available from Oyate (see below).
The authors, one a children's librarian who is Santee Dakota-Cree, the other a long-time activist author of several anti-bias bibliographies of children's books, were part of a Berkeley group of Native artists, writers and educators called Oyate formed in the 80's to combat racism in education. This book pulls together a number of short articles -- some reprinted from sources that would be impossible to find -- about stereotyping and inaccuracies in children's books and education generally. School Thanksgivings come in for knocks from Modoc Michael Dorris for example.
There are 124 pages of book reviews -- seemingly all by the authors (they aren't signed or initialed) -- and a 32-page checklist of how to recognize good and bad children's books on Native Americans (with examples of comparative good and bad text excerpts for each characteristic) which is available separately (see title above) for $8. The emphasis is onbooks the younger end of the age spectrum, although some books suitable for secondary students are reviewed. Several bibliographies at the end of the book are still somewhat useful, though compiled in 1972, where certain classics (mostly not children's books) are included. But the list of resources -- groups, small publishers, Indian associations -- is almost entirely outdated and useless, should be updated in the next edition with new organizations and contacts.
When Slapin, Seale, and other Native writers, educators and artists began the project that eventually became this book, they thought of "just a couple of articles and a few book reviews." After the first publication of this unique resource appeard (in 1987), they began hearing from Native people all over north America, and began to realize how much there is of genuine and very good Native writing, mostly from small publishers who have no "in" with schools, colleges, libraries, teachers. Many of these writers, the women found "are so gifted that they would be famous if they were not Indians." My guess is, too, that as the multicult bandwagon began to roll, they started seeing extraordinarily bad stuff of a somewhat different kind -- no overt racism, white-collar PC with attractive machine-beadwork, Dick, Jane, Puff and Spot live-in-a-tipi sort of thing. Children's books by actual native writers from major educational publishers seem no more common now than in the early 1980's.
There is a 42-page poetry section (and some poems by Indian poets scattered about through the front part of the book). Though a few poems are taken from published books, most were written by Native poets invlved in the Oyate project (some have since been published as parts of collections). Wendy Rose writes a powerful angry dirge from a woman who died at Wounded Knee. Rose was inspired by an auctioneer's catalog description of items stripped by soldiers from the Wounded Knee dead: woman's leggings, $250, etc. The auction huckster is somewhat appologetic: the bloody bodies froze in the snow which "has stiffened the lggings and moccasins, and all the objects show the effects of age and long use. Items pictured for sale were gathered at the site of the massacre." Not a Nuagey Motherearth-and-earthy-natives effusion type poem. Not only will this poem help teachers or parents understand a Native viewpoint, it is a good poem for classroom discussion of meanings, in a context -- perhaps around Christmas time, when the Wounded Knee Massacre happened in 1890 -- of some "multicultural ed" on this part of U.S. history.
A savagely amusing, poem by Diane Burns is titled "Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question" You see her part of a dialog -- she's an Indian woman answering a lot of common foolish questions. (This poem will crack up just about any adult Indian woman, but there'll be a certain little bitter undertone to our laughter.) There are more gentle poems, too, but these two -- which I've never seen anywhere else -- are my favorites. What's poetry doing in a book of recommendations about children's books? "Poetry is an important form of expression for Native people, particularly for writers working now. It is a way of being able to make the words of an alien language speak for us." This poetry is there to help non-Indian people better understand -- through feelings communicated in unique, powerful, and beautiful ways by the poets -- the perspectiv from which native eyes see good and bad in children's books about or by Indian people. But of course, all the poems are useful as classroom material for (mostly for older students), too.
In this edition, there are 12 short essays at the start of the book. These are addressed to teachers, librarians, and parents who would like their children's reading not to promote racism or racist stereotypes. Essay subjects range from school readings and practices that still do promote racism, to storytelling as a part of sacred and culturally valid activities that connect tribal people with the earth to an essay about the theft of Native culture by white writers, who mine it for their own stories. This whole section of the book should in my opinion be must reading, required of all teachers and school librarians. After all, "to the making of books there is no end." a source like this book (and even an ever-growing ever-current on-line source) cannot keep up. So the point is to acquire the Native perspective yourself, as much as possible, through understanding and the self-questioning and book-questioning these authors suggest, but having gone through a short course in it from many different Native viewpoints.
Following this is a long section of children's book reviews -- ranging from a short 1 or 2 paragraphs to several pages -- from a Native viewpoint. The reviews are longer when they are bad, because many books that receive bad reviews have the reasons for this rating explained at length. Often books which receive bad reviews are considered outstanding by non-Indians -- some have received high praise and awards. The reviewers explain at considerable length, with examples, why they are bad. Thus "Knots on a Counting Rope" which shows up recommended on a web page of Indian education by a (non-Indian) multicultural education consultant is panned as a cynical and insulting trashing of Native -- specially Navajo -- culture by its non-Indian authors. This book is discussed at considerable lngth, with many quotes from its text, to indicate why this is so from a Native viewpoint.
Other books which receive downchecks are shown as good stories, attractive and popular, whose inaccuracies to Native culture or life make them more subtle embodiments of racism. An example is the Canadian Children's Book of the Year (1984) Sweetgrass whose viewpoint character is allegedly a 19th century Plains Native teenage girl. But she's actually a selfish white suburban teenager in brownface, who has some super bnad problems (her family dies of the plague) -- perhaps why the book was so attractive to the white literary establishment. Other pans include the popular books by Lynne Reid Banks -- Indian in the Cupboard recently a Disney cartoon and still being negatively discussed by actual Indian people, and Banks's 2 sequels: Return of the Indian and Secret of the Indian, the latter too recent to be covered by this edition of Indian Eyes.
All is not negative. The reviewers pick out good Indian books for young people, too, though there is a tendency to say less about those. Nor is it a requirement that all such books must be by Indian authors. The criterion is sufficient knowledge and involvement with real Native people, culture, life to portray them realistically, though the imaginative space a good fiction writer constructs is respected. The reviewers also make some allowances for the period when the book was written. Thus for Olaf Baker's Where the Buffaloes Begin (which was written in 1915, and has won all sorts of prizes since its reprinting), the reviewer points out that a certain amount of racial stereotyping is found in charcterizing the Assininboine, enemies of the viewpoint character's tribe, but "the book is authentic in so many other ways that I might use this with children but change a few words." Unfortunately, this is OK for the read-aloud storyteller-teacher or librarian, but doesn't work if this is a reading book for grade 3 -5 kids, reading it themselves. Actually, this one looks like the type of book where you have kids read it, and then discuss parts of it afterwards.
Sometimes the reviewers seem to me to have gone over the top. Thus a book by John Bierhorst gets panned partly because the reviewer dosn't know that in fact there are a whole whole lot of oral Native tales that are adaptations of all sorts of western ones, from Aesop, Cinderella, and all sorts of stories the Native storyteller heard or read somewhere and made his or her own. Anthros pay little attention to these (not authentic) but they're pretty good stories.
What the reviewer mainly doesn't like about this book, though, is its illustrations, where all the animal characters "are animals dressed up like Indians; not from back then, but right now. Coyote wears blue jeans, a squash blossom necklace, and a windband and drives a pickup....". According to the reviewer this promotes the idea that Indian people are animal-like. I totally disagree, especially when seeing the cover illustration from the book in the review. Illustrations are cartoon-like animals; it makes as little sense to criticize them for promoting the idea they suggest animalism of Native people as it would for a naturalist to complain coyotes really do not wear any clothes. Cartoon animals are a staple of many types of funny children's books. With this review I was left actually wondering if the stories themselves are any good, distrusting the reviewer's criteria here, because she seems to have been put off by the illustrations, which I think I would probably like. Still, that was an exception. It doesn't matter whether I agree or disagree with the reviews; the point is that for most of them -- though not this one -- there is enough info provided so you can tell if it's a book you'd want to check out further, a must-have, or one you needn't bother with. The reviewers give their opinions, but more importantly they discuss -- often with extensive supporting quotes -- what those opinions are based on in the books.
Where there's not enough info, it tends to be for something like O Wakaga: Activitis for Learning About the Plains Indians The reviewer really likes it, but the review is only 3 sentences long! I would like to see something more about the contents. The reviewer mentions "emphasis on the Lakota people" so (for instance) is there really much coverage at all on other Plains tribes? Just a sketch of the table of contents would have helped a lot in this very mini-review. That's true of many of the books they like. Not enough info! We cannot get everything rcommended as good! therefore, we need content summaries on which to base the choices limited budgets force. Among the most annoying missing info is the missing prices. That's usually pretty hard to pull out of library computer or reference sources (you'll see on this website some reviews that don't have it, but I always want and add it if available).
No prices at all are given. Although prices do change over the years between editions, knowing the price is an essential info for school purchases. Knowing book prices is critical if, with limited budget you're trying to decide on relatively large numbers of books for all-class reading, but true even if you are deciding how to spend the $50 allotted for "multicultural" books, or the total $100 of school library purchases. Price info is vital for people making difficult choices on very limited book budgets in tribal schools, or trying to work up a small grant for tribal school library purchases. ISBN numbers are also missing; those ar a great help in locating books through the much-merged major commercial publishers' backlists.
There is a small group of books written by Native authors and published by Native presses, whose use Slapin and Seale want to encourage. (There are many more like this in Oyate's 1996 catalog -- $3). Regrettably, these books are often difficult -- impossible, really -- to get hold of, the publishers were short lived, and the distribution was from someone's house (long moved) or by long-defunct projects. This type of book rarely stays in print very long. Too, small publishers are sometimes transient organizations.
Thus many of the book reviews of books you can no longer find (and they're not in most libraries) are of greatest use in trying to impart some kind of literary standard or feel to non-Indian purchasers of Indian children's books. That's continued in the exemplary checklist section, where good and bad examples ar provided for many qualities to look for. People who are entirely removed from Indian culture and start by knowing nothing of history can learn.
I feel that Native book reviews continue to remain of critical importance. I have been reviewing and receiving a number of newish books about native Americans for children and young people. For many, someone ignorant of Native history and lifestyles might not see what's wrong with them -- and plenty is wrong with most of them. Then when one looks at prestigious children's book review sources one sees these books that are BAD from a genuine Native viewpoint praised for the supposed Native viewpoints, knowledge, cultural sensitivity, etc. Just recently I came across a glowing review for a children's reference (From Abenaki to Zuni) that I consider so bad it is the subject of an essay on recognizing badness in such young people's references.
Myths and legends, when run through the white children's writer's homogenization machine, come out sanitized, plasticized, and packaged into moralistic little tales that bear only shallow resemblance to the ambiguous, multilayered stories that they were modeled on (which sometimes make little sense to such writers unfamiliar with both historical and cultural context of the originals). This homogenization, far from promoting general knowledge of Indian culture, destroys it, in a manner similar to white society using up trees as raw material for lumber and making paper from woodpulp. Whatever the value of the lumber or pulp products, they are not live trees of the forest. And there's something more to be said about non-Indian authors bringing out children's books that are retellings of Native traditional stories: Cultural ripoff.
Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, a Canadian Anishnabeg, whose essay (which hasd been much reprinted) is in the front of TIE, writes succinctly and cogently on the theme of white writers who exploit Native culture, and about the consequences of preferring ersatz works produced by non-Indian writers who are in effect stealing a resource, treating it as mere raw material, and processing it into a white cultural product. For the reasons she details in "Not Just Entertainment", teachers and parents should make the effort to seek out books by Native writers. This same theme is tackled from a getler angle by Abenaki storyteller and writer Joseph Bruchac.
By and large, books by Native writers are published by little presses, or special projects, difficult to find and often ephemeral. Thus it is good that AISES is carrying a few such books (AISES books are marked here with AISES logo). But most of the AISES books are published by non-Indian firms: major commercial publishers and university presses.
Oyate itself has a 1996 48-page catalog of some Native books of the small press type that can be ordereed through them. This is available from Oyate for $3 at:
Oyate 2702 Mathews St. Berkeley, CA 94702
This logo marks books available from Oyate.Purchasing books there will help this organization continue its good work. Purchase ($3 to cover mailing) of the catalog is especially recommended for teachers, librarians, and parents. On the outside back cover is a mush shorter 1-page list of book selction do's and don't's. Inside are subject and author indexes; pages of audiotapes of Native storytellers and Native music; hard-to-get videos (including the highly-recommended Kifaru Productions "Wiping the Tears of 7 Generations"); several of Oyate's own publications, and a great many books almost all from small Native presses at all reading levels. Unlike most piblishers' catalogs, this one contains a sentence or three of content description, not just the titles.
The back of the Oyate catalog has been made into an 18 x 24" poster, ($10) Centered by a large black and white photo of a young girl holding a fluffy, little long-beaked wild bird on her finger, all the positive and negative qualities explained at length in "How to Tell the Difference" are here rewritten as brief do's and don't's. This is more an educational than an artistic or display poster. It would be appropriate in any library display, or librarian's or multicultural specialist's office. Cost includes mailing in a tube.
Oyate has an order form and a FAX number 510-848-4815, but it will be best if schools and individuals prepay orders if possible. (Shipping is $3 for the first item and $1 each additiona; UPS is $5 for the first and $1 for each additional.) Oyate is not set up to handle credit card purchases. To order by mail or FAX without prepaying puts a strain on an organization with limited financing that is doing a much-needed job. They can (in some circumstances) take school or college PO's, but again to get and to ship larger orders, then invoice and wait (usually several months) to be paid strains this small organization. Educational institutions and those placing larger orders should -- after checking that everything is still available -- make an effort to pre-pay, if at all possible.
(Move |Bruchac's to another page when the NADP stuff comes if it ever does). Call them. Note the same financial difficulty and copy the paragraph about prepaying orders. She sent it to me, the post office returned it. She's sending another.)
Another Native book source is a non-profit enterprise, Native Authors Distribution Project, Joseph Bruchac has undertaken, a mail-order service making available books by Native authors, especially from small presses. The Native American Authors Distribution Project is mentioned in the resources section of Through Indian Eyes. Below is more info and updated phones. Note that the best way to contact the project is not to call (you will get a tape) or to FAX (you must prepay orders). Send $1 for the extensive catalog.
NATIVE AMERICAN AUTHORS DISTRIBUTION PROJECT, The Greenfield Review Press, 2 Middle Grove Road, P.O. Box 308, Greenfield Center, NY 12833 (tel. 518-583-1440 or 518-584-1728; fax 518-583-9741). 60 page 1995 catalog of Native North American writers.
Distributes only work written or co-authored by Native American authors, now more than 600 titles from more than 90 different publishers, mostly books, but also including audio tapes and current issues (and some back issues) of these periodicals: Akwe:kon Journal ($5), The Eagle ($2), The Four Directions ($6), Gatherings 3 ($15), News From Indian Country ($1), News From Native California ($4.50), Turtle Quarterly ($4), Wicazo Sa Review ($10), and the new Wordcraft Circle quarterly journal, Wordtrails ($10); New 1995 60-page catalog is $1.00 and includes capsule summaries of each book and three indexes, one by title, one by author (with tribal affiliation), and one by tribe. All books and periodicals and audio tapes from all of the different publishers in the catalog can be ordered directly from the Greenfield Review Press; postage and handling $2 for 1-2 items, and .50 for each additional item (overseas orders, $5 for 1-2 items, and $1 for each additional item); NY residents add 7% sales tax; no credit card payments can be accepted. Reviewed by .
PG Note: This is a project of Abenaki author and storyteller Joseph Bruchac and family. The first phone number is a business hours voice line. Please send them $1 to mail you their catalog and pre-pay your orders. They cannot readily invoice, and if you treat this family nonprofit enterprise as if it were just another catalog bookseller, you will destroy this unique resource of genuine, hard-to-find Native literature! Schools, in particular, are urged to find genuine Native books by Indian writers here, not the homogenized non-Indian ones most major publishers offer.
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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996
Last Updated: Friday, March 15, 1996 - 5:22:42 AM