November 11th, 2009

Warriors Caught In The Crossfire

Native American and Alaskan Native Voices: Alternative World Views in Fiction and Nonfiction Children’s Literature.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian,  by Sherman Alexie 

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.

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Now what?

Here is the big question, the one everyone wants somebody to answer:

Who can write books about Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, Indians, Eskimos…

… Abenaki , Acolapissa, Acoma Pueblo, Athabaskan, Alabama-Coushatta , Algonquin, Aluutiq, Anishinabe / Ojibwe / Chippewa, Apache, Apsaroke / Crow, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Atikamekw, Bannock, Beothuk, Blackfoot, Caddo, Cahuilla, Cayuse, Chaco Canyon Pueblo, Chehalis, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Chinook, Choctaw, Chumash, Cochiti Pueblo, Coeur D'Alene (Schitsu'umsh), Colville, Comanche, Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe, Cree, Creek, Delaware Lenape , Eyak, Flathead, Goshute- Haida, Gwich'in, Haida Hidatsa, Han, Hoopa ( Hupa ), Hopi, Houma, Huron / Wendat, Innu, Inupiaq, Iroquois, Isleta Pueblo , Jemez Pueblo, Kansa, Kikapoo, Kiowa, Klamath Tribes (Klamath / Modoc / Yahooskin), Klallam, Koyukon, Kuaua, Kumeyaay, Kwakiutl, Laguna, Lummi, Lushootseed, Mandan, Mahican, Makah, Maliseet, Menominee, Miami, Mi'kMaq, Mohegan, Mojave, Muckleshoot, Muscogee, Natchez, Nambe, Narragansett, Navajo, Nez Perce, Nisqally, Omaha, Oneida, Osage, Ottawa, Paiute, Palouse, Pawnee, Penobscot, Picuris, Pojoaque, Potawatomi, Pueblo, Quapaw, Quileute- Quinault Nation, Sandia Pueblo, San Filipe Pueblo, San Ildefonso Pueblo, San Juan Pueblo, Santa Ana Pueblo- Santa Clara Pueblo, Santo Domingo Pueblo, Seminole, Shoshone, Sioux, Shoalwater Bay Tribe, Skokomish, Spokane, Squaxin Island Tribe, Taos, Tesuque, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Tulalip, Umatilla / Wallawalla, Ute, Yakima / Yakama, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, Yupik, Zia Pueblo, Zuni Pueblo?

I don’t have the answer to that question. I can’t even point out all the errors or omissions made in the above list. I do know it’s incomplete. Even so, it’s one heck of a list, don’t you think? I use it to make a point—a rather obvious point, I think. There are commonalities among indigenous people everywhere, but these names represent distinct people with distinct cultures and widely varying customs. Their histories are likewise unique. I’ve lived for thirty years in an Inupiaq community but I could not write with any authority at all about our neighbors the Gwich'in, nor would I try.

A lot of people don’t want to hear this, but I agree with Metis author Maria Campbell, who said, “if you want to write our stories, be prepared to live with us.”  

I heard Maria speaking on National Public Radio years ago and these words struck a very strong a cord with me. Why?  I  never really thought about it before, other than to say, she’s right. But now, in the context of this conversation, it occurs to me: audience. It has to do with who you imagine as the audience for your books.

My book Blessing’s Bead was released yesterday and in a local interview, I was asked who I thought of while writing it.  This made me think of Stephan King’s advice in On Writing, to write for your Ideal Reader. Your Ideal Reader is the person you imagine reading your work, the person whose opinion counts. Your I.R. influences what you chose to write about and how you write it—even the words you use.

This brings me back to my beginnings as a children’s writer because my I.R. is an Inupiaq child. My main goal was to have young Inupiaq readers be able to pick up my books and say, Hey, I know these guys! None of the books my kids were reading at the time I started writing were written from this perspective. I figured if i could get that perspecitive right--or even sort of right--the white readers would relate to it just fine. It wasn't quite that easy, but that's another story.

I can totally relate to what Nancy said in response to Debbie Resse yesterday: “I was teaching a class of teachers, all Navajo and teaching at schools on the Navajo Reservation. We were working on lesson plans based on experiences and knowledge of the students and using complimentary resources. Several teachers wanted to develop lesson plans about the seasons and months of the year. I could not believe that there was not one book available written about the Navajo cycle of seasons.”

Amidst a plethora of holiday books, I could not believe there were no children’s books written about the many holidays surrounding the Inupiaq whaling culture, so I wrote one, a very small one, about only one of the many events that define the Inupiaq connection to the whale. I didn’t write it because I thought the world needed to know about it. Don’t get me wrong—I think it’s wonderful if this book shows people something important about Inupiaq culture, but that’s not why I wrote it; I wrote it because I thought Inupiaq children deserved an Inupiaq holiday book.

And the thing I love most is that in reading it to a group of young Inupiaq readers they get things other readers don’t get. And I get to be the one who says, hey guess what, guys—you know things other kids don’t know. When it comes to reading books, they don't get that message much. I get to point to the flag in one of the pictures in my book and ask: Why is there an A on that flag?

The Inupiaq kids say Amiqqaq, right away—they’ve listened to the story. They know whaling crew is the Amiqqaq crew. There’s an A on the flag. Duh. Then I tell them what kids in Anchorage say when I ask them that question. They say that the A stands for Alaska, or America.

My point is that I think you will be less likely to go in the wrong direction, when writing outside your culture, if you imagine the children of that culture reading your words.

But make no mistake, there is a need for more books written by Native writers. I am not Inupiaq. I know what it means to walk two worlds, but the first world I walked in was not a Native world, I am an immigrant. It's a valid perspective. In terms of bridge-bilding it may even be a valuable perspective but, as Bahe Whitethorne, Jr. said yesterday, “I would imagine that 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.”

This makes me think of something Vera Williams said. You guys must be starting to think that Vera is my hero or something. In truth she spoke at VCFA when I was a student there and said some really good things. Appropos to this conversation, she remembered reaching a point in her art career where she didn’t want to see any more nude women painted by men.

I went through a period like that in my reading. I only wanted to read books written by writers of color. I know, I know, weird thing for a white woman to say. Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was my comfort reading. It was a book where I could find Native people alive and well, living on the page with no outside filters. It warmed my heart to see them there like that. 

Cyn Smith in an interview at Tu Publishing remembers her reading habits as a kid, “Honestly, I tended to avoid books with Native characters. They didn’t ring true to me, and often made me feel embarrassed. Avoidance is my defense strategy,” she said. 

Same thing.

And finally, there is a need to take Native writers out of the writing-about-things-Native box. (Take me out of that box too, please. I’m just writing about things I know in my my own way with my own filters. What else would I write about? What else would any of us write about?)

As Bahe said, “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.”


As Uma Krishnaswami said: “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.”

So I am going to end with Sherman Alexie, from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I could waste a lot of words telling you how this relates to everything I’ve just said. But you don’t need me to tell you that. You’d rather hear Sherman's voice, believe me.

'I'm not nomadic,' Rowdy said. 'Hardly anybody on this rez is nomadic. Except for you. You're the nomadic one.'


'No. I'm serious. I always knew you were going to leave. I always knew you were going to leave us behind and travel the world. I had this dream about you a few months ago. You were standing on the Great Wall of China. You looked happy. And I was happy for you.'

Rowdy didn't cry. But I did.

'You're an old-time nomad,' Rowdy said. 'You're going to keep moving all over the world in search of food and water and grazing land. That's pretty cool.'

I could barely talk.

'Thank you,' I said.

'Yeah,' Rowdy said. 'Just make sure you send me postcards, you asshole.'

'From everywhere,' I said.