Native American and Alaskan Native Voices: Alternative World Views in Fiction and Nonfiction Children’s Literature.
Read this brilliant book that tells – shows - does - everything I hope to discuss today.
Be ready to laugh, to cry, to ponder.
Junior, the main character, with too many teeth and water on the brain, struggles like every kid who has dribbled a basketball on this planet. He struggles with bullies, prejudiced teachers, rejection, loss. White peers make fun of him; Indian peers mock him; his best friend abandons him. Junior is both real and unique; his adolescent struggles are universal. Junior is Indian, Spokane, but that is not the point. That is the perspective shared, the new set of eyes offered to the reader.
Junior struggles to figure out how to love parents that disappoint him, embarrass him, but parents who love him and come to every basketball game he plays. How do you love and hate someone at the same time?
Junior fights to survive. He makes lists, he draws, he laughs. With his best friend, the one who beats him up, he cries. How do you survive grief and not go crazy?
Junior draws cartoons trying to figure out what is the difference between deserting your community and helping them by leaving? How do you know if you have enough heart? What is hope? The hope your grandmother believes in, makes you believe in, even after she dies?
Sherman Alexie shows life through the eyes and heart of Junior -- a Spokane Indian, an American, a kid growing up, a kid with parents who drink too much; he is the kid who cries too much, thinks too much. The reader gets to hitchhike onto the Rez, step into Junior’s heart and see through another pair of eyes, another perspective.
We need new eyes. We need many voices. We need books with real kids, American Indian, Alaskan Natives, in authentic situations. We need accurate histories and contemporary biographies.
We do not need stereotypes.
Bahe Whitethorne, Jr., Navajo, is the artistic director of Salina Bookshelf, a publisher of bilingual books in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Bahe, what are the stereotypes or inaccuracies that you find frustrating, disgusting, even damaging, regarding the way Native Americans are presented in children's books?
“Being an “Urban Indian,” raised on a border town next to the reservation, I think everything is inaccurate that represents Native Americans in the media. I mean, even being Navajo Art Director publishing bilingual books I know I don’t have all the “right” knowledge to “accurately” portray the Navajo people. I do my best to represent myself as being a Native with what I’ve experienced as a child growing up. I’ve gone to school in town, but during the summers I was “shipped” off to Grandma’s on the reservation. But that was a limited amount of time. I didn’t to have live out there. I figure I still need to spend more time learning by going back on the reservation and connecting more with family and friends to experience more of what they can bring. They’re my connection to the Navajo reservation lifestyle; they live out there. All I have to do is go back and be with them. I’m sure, as with my father, that my Aunts and Uncles are full of stories of their own.
So, right now I’ve come to accept what Main Stream Media has done, and is still doing, with stereotyping people and their cultures. It’s everywhere and has been happening for years. I got so used to seeing the Tipi and the Indian head-band and war paint, and the Indian drum pattern -- you know that classic Hollywood drum pattern. As a kid I knew I was an “Indian”, but not “that” kind of Indian. I ways thought that “those” Indians were funny cartoon characters, you know, like Mickey Mouse and Woody Woodpecker. I guess I can say that it was my way of seeing the positive side to it. Well, for one, being an Indian kid and Navajo mainly, I never could relate with that stereotyped Indian, on any level. It had nothing that related to my tribe visually or even culturally.
The way I see it is we just have to do the best we can to experience more of the people and culture we’re trying to present and present it as “accurately,” as we can, without any filter. Even though on some level, or by someone else, it’s “not right.”’
Bahe, you have been working for a number of years creating bilingual books. What kind of books do we need so that Native American literature becomes a viable body of literature that offers an "alternative world view?"
“First and foremost, we need more Native writers. There’s nothing more authentic then hearing the Native voice from its Native source. I don’t see any problems with Anglo writers writing about Natives; that’s fine. But let’s just say that’s one perception, an outside voice looking in. The same as if that Anglo was writing about any other culture. I would imagine that group of people would like to hear it from their own culture’s voice, if it’s about them, with no filters or outside perceptions. And if it is a voice from outside I’d like to hear that the writer’s experiences with the culture were deep and true to themselves other than just for the writing.
Second, we need more Native writers in different categories of writing other than the Spirituality and New Age section at a bookstore. I guess in the disguise of stereotypes, the more targeted market for Native writing is the natural and spiritual healing process of the Culture. I know it’s hard, and for everybody, but to deny something because it’s not the norm is really denying everybody from learning about everyone else. If there were more great stories about Native fiction or Native type fairy tales, or Action packed comics with Natives, or Science Fiction of “Natives in Space!” that would be kind of neat.
I know getting published is hard and not just for Natives. A majority of people that submit and get one rejection will just stop trying, and there are a lot of people doing this. If I had to give one advice that I’ve learned being in the publishing business is “persistence.” Never give up. If you want be published there’s more than one publisher out there.”
Needed: Many kinds of books -- Natives in Space, Action Packed Comics, Natives Today, Voice!
I asked Uma Krishnaswami, faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, an author of many children’s books and a teacher of writing for children.
Uma, what kind of books do we need so that multicultural literature offer an "alternative worldview?" Are there specific multicultural books that accurately represent contemporary children?.
“We need to get that word "multicultural" off the table, first thing. It's done its work, and really, we should be past it now. We need books with characters from many, many cultures, in stories that are not only or even necessarily about culture. Janet Wong's Minn and Jake books do this brilliantly, with humor that includes everyone and begs the question of boundaries. Cynthia Leitich Smith's picture book, Jingle Dancer, places a contemporary child in a context that is at once traditional and everyday. Grace Lin's fictionalized memoir, The Year of the Dog, is another lovely example. Rita William-Garcia takes us all into the troubled and often terrifying world of Jumped, but it's also a book in which there is no such thing as a single story.
For myself, I wrote Naming Maya because the story wouldn't leave me alone, but as I worked through it I realized that I wanted to show a girl who could belong in more than one world, that both her worlds were contemporary, and she didn't have to choose between them. One wasn't worse or better than the other. As I work through my current middle grade novel (the title at this time is The Road to Sunny Villa, and it's due out in 2011), I realize that I want to write a tale of friendship stretching like an elastic band around the world. I want to write humor set in a funny, bustling, eccentric India. In part I want to do that because as a 12-year-old I laughed myself silly reading the slyly manufactured world of P.G. Wodehouse, and really, all writing is a conversation with the writing that's gone before it. That's a good reason for books that invite discourse.
One last thought: we need fantasy and sci-fi with a cultural slant. I was thrilled to see this new press with exactly that mission: Tu Publishing, Yes, I know, they do use that multi...word, but what a terrific vision! I can't wait to see what comes of this effort.”
I encourage you to read more about what Uma says about children’s books and writing them. Look at this Uma's blog, Writing With A Broken Tusk, and this post in particular : How To Write About...(Pick a Place or People)
A tapestry of voices. So many pairs of eyes to look through. Look at a photograph anew and listen.
Arguments today fly like arrows about who can write about what culture, who can show or tell.
I think we need every voice that is honest, every set of eyes that look without glancing away, as Bahe said, “without filters, without stereotypes”. We need every book that offers an authentic opportunity to see into another’s world, past or contemporary, heroic or tragic, fiction, fantasy, biography, nonfiction. Maybe even sci-fi.
Ellen Meloy has written of the desert with eyes that observe the shifting color of sunlight on rock, ears that hear how fast or slowly water flows down an arroyo. In her book, The Anthropology of Turquoise, Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky, she reminds the reader that every voice, every language offers a reality that is lost if that voice is silenced:
There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrua Spanish-Maya Dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth. (quoted from Earl Shorris, “The Last Word”)
When a voice is silenced, a pair of eyes are shut.
So many voices to be heard. Voices as real and honest and beautiful as a butterfly.
On Friday we will suggest books, blog sites, and places to search where you will find new sets of eyes. Each set of honest eyes is something to celebrate.