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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book Review - Education - How To Tell The Difference by Beverly Slapin, etc. and Writing about Native Americans

I wish to have Native American characters in my SylFaen Tree Saga, so I was delighted to find and read this book. How To Tell The Difference: A Checklist for Evaluating Children's Books for Anti-Indian Bias, by Beverly Slapin, Doris Seale and Rosemary Gonzalez. Slapin and company demonstrate misrepresentations of Native Americans in Children's Literature and compare them to appropriate representations.

It explains how many books use stereotypes and pejorative language when talking about Native Americans. I realized how much this book is needed when three seconds after describing the purpose of this book to my teenage son to recommend he read it, I came across a misrepresentation.

I was continuing to reading the bedtime story, The Once and Future King, by T.H. White, a children's book about King Arthur an ocean away and hundreds of years before Columbus, to my nine year old. White used a totally irrelevant reference to “base Indians” and starting fire with sticks. Clearly a book about anti-Indian bias is needed.
 Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie, one of my favorite stories, also has to be looked at in the light of this checklist. Slapin's clear examples and thorough checklist are valuable for anyone who selects and teaches from children's books, be they classics or modern titles.

My concern now is how to write Native American characters that are respectful. Without a doubt, I respect Native American cultures. But as I try to write about the native spirit world of North America I find myself woefully ignorant. It is one of my many challenges to try to learn enough to not inadvertently misrepresent Native peoples and cultures.

Unfortunately for me, the particular part of North America I wish to work with is the northeast where European incursion caused the most damage to the transference of culture, traditions and beliefs. It is hard for me to find good source material about pre-European life and belief here in the northeast. Of particular interest to me is any discussion of beliefs about nature spirits, humanoid or not, and other worlds, underworlds and upper worlds, etc. I have read several books about the popular stories and legends told by Native Americans, that includes examples from the northeast, but the number of individual stories I have been able locate have been relatively few. Most of the books seem to use the same few stories. If anybody has any recommendations I would love to hear them.

How To Tell The Difference: A Checklist for Evaluating Children's Books for Anti-Indian Bias. By Slapin, Beverly; Seale, Doris; and Gonzalesz, Rosemary. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, PA. 1988. ISBN USA 0-86571-214-x Paperback


Beth said...

No kidding! Did you read the Little House series to your kids, as well? I was really surprised to see the prejudice when reading the book to my sons as an adult.

Thanks for sharing this book!
A quick google search turned up this site which might be helpful in your search:

KC Trae Becker said...

This book is a practical guide to seeing the respect or disrespect of Native Americans in literature. I'm learning, more and more, that there is wonderful variety between tribes and people. The website you suggested is a great resource to help me find what I'm looking for. Thanks, Beth. That was sweet of you to search for me.

Chris said...

Very interesting - both the book and your observation about a lack of information on northeastern tribes. Re: information, I wonder if this is due to fewer large-scale confrontations as compared to widely known conflicts such as the the Trail of Tears or the massive conquest of the plains by an organized US military. Northeast tribes also suffered conquerers and relocation, but maybe not as conspicuously. Incidentally, I recently read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Incredible read, but nothing about northeastern tribes.

Re: the literary bias, I wonder how it compares to the depiction of African American culture in literature and the criticisms thereof. I saw that Google had a doodle recently commemorating Zora Neale Hurston. She was an African American author, among other roles. To quote Wikipedia, "Many readers objected to the representation of African-American dialect in Hurston's novels." It offers an example from Jonah's Gourd Vine: "Ah'll wash yo' tub uh 'gator guts...." It's interesting to consider what might justify an author's use of a stereotype. And do authors have more freedom in this if they're writing about their own culture. Incidentally, I live in Cleveland where a native american group has begged our baseball team for years to get rid of its insulting cartoon Indian logo. And I used to live near Washington DC where the football team still won't get rid of its insulting team name. Unbelievable.

KC Trae Becker said...

I suspect it is due to more integration occurring before the danger of culture loss was well understood. I'm pretty sure there are pockets of North Eastern tribes still around. But other than the kid's book, Dickon Among the Delaware which focuses on the lifestyle, I am unaware of any book specifically about the beliefs or stories of the North Eastern tribes.

Chris F said...

Just read a nice short story for children entitled Minnow and Rose by Judy Young ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1585364215?pc_redir=1410586562&robot_redir=1). The plot involves natives helping a wagon train across a river, and the author claims there are multiple accounts of this taking place, as well as multiple documented cases of natives rescuing settlers who went overboard during the crossings. It was an interesting historical point that I had never heard of.

KC Trae Becker said...

That sounds like an interesting book, Chris. I'll have to check that out. Thanks for sharing it.