Jul 19, 2010

Native American Literature

Bruchac, Joseph. 1997. Many Nations: An Alphabet of Native America. Troll Communications. ISBN 978-0816743896.

An alphabet picture book featuring Native American Indians.

Critical Analysis:
From “Anishanabe artists making birch bark bowls” to “Zuni elders saying prayers for the day that is done,” Bruchac presents an alphabet picture book featuring traditional Native Americans in their daily lives. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by a Nation’s people or animal. Text is sparse (usually less than 8 words per page), but the full-page illustrations from Robert F. Goetzl pick up where the words leave off. Iroquois planting trees of peace, Klallam carvers, and Shinnecock dancers grace the pages. There are women, men, children, fathers and mothers representing a variety of Nations. Not every page depicts the same type of Native American. Men are wearing breechcloths (a long rectangular piece of hide or cloth tucked over a belt) or leather leggings, women wear tear dresses or shawls, and children peek out of papooses. Skin tones and hair styles also vary. Men have long or short hair, women wear their hair down or braided. No person looks exactly alike. Bruchac and Goetzl did a good job of featuring many different kinds of Native people. Scenery, time of year and landscape also differ from page to page. For example, Micmac hunters trek in the snow and Lummi women gather clams in the sea. Herders, gatherers, hunters, fisherman, and farmers are all illustrated. It would have been impossible for Bruchac and Goetzl to include every Nation or tribe. However, the two did a good job of choosing Natives that represent different parts of the country.

My one complaint is the inclusion of two animals, the eagle and the fox. The animal’s placement can easily be justified, but there was no explanation of how they fit in. Which tribe? Does the eagle or fox have special meaning to a particular Nation? Does the reader have to assume that all animals are sacred or revered to the Native Americans?

Bruchac includs an author note where he states the purpose of the book, the regions that are represented, and encourages for readers to respect and learn more about the original Nations to America. A pronunciation guide and additional resources would have also been a welcome addition. Recommended for ages 3 and up.

International Reading Association Teacher's Choice Award

“The pictures tell much more than the text and they demonstrate the wide diversity among the native peoples of North America.” Children’s Literature

“The stated purpose of this project is to exemplify the diversity of Native nations, both past and present. This intention is beautifully carried out, but leads to unfortunate, yet probable confusion.” School Library Journal

Shoulders, Michael & Debbie. 2006. D Is for Drum: A Native American Alphabet. Sleeping Bear Press. ISBN: 978-1585362745

Red Hawk, Richard D. 1998. A, B, C's: The American Indian Way. Sierra Oaks Publishing Company. ISBN: 978-0940113152

Have children create their ABC book using items that are important to them and their heritage.

Leitich Smith, Cynthia. 2002. Indian Shoes. Harper Collins. ISBN: 978-0060295318

Six contemporary short stories of a Seminole-Cherokee boy named Ray and his Grampa Halfmoon.

Critical Analysis:
Ray is a teenage Seminole-Cherokee boy being raised by his Grampa Halfmoon in Chicago, IL. By reading the six vignettes, it is evident that the two have a very close relationship. The reader is never told the circumstances that led to Grampa Halfmoon’s main guardianship role, but we quickly realize the deep, loving, and respectful relationship they share. Ray and Grampa Halfmoon are eager to please each other, and the two solve a few of life’s little problems. In one story, Grampa Halfmoon lends Ray his pants after the tux shop neglects to deliver the bottom half of Ray’s special attire at a wedding where he is to be the ring-bearer. Grampa adorns a lace tablecloth and peeks through the doors as Ray walks down the aisle with the wedding rings in his pocket. In another story, Grampa gives Ray a very disastrous hair cut the day of a big baseball game. Grampa’s solution involves hair dye that incorporates the team’s colors. Ray is embarrassed of his hair at the game, but the heat proves too much - he has to remove his hat. The crowd goes wild with support over Ray’s orange and purple do. When Ray goes to give his Grampa a thumbs-up in approval, he can nott believe his eyes! Grampa’s hair is decorated in the same neon colors as Ray’s. Grampa Halfmoon and Ray always appear as a team and two peas in a pod. They never argue or squabble when something goes wrong and they share in their (small) misery and joy. The two men put their heads together and always come up with unique, often humorous, solutions to life’s small issues.

Throughout each story, Ray mentions how much he misses his aunts and uncles in Oklahoma. He compares the lakes in Illinois to the lakes in Oklahoma. He also knows how much his Grampa misses his family and in the “Indian Shoes” story, Ray acquires, after a lot of bargaining, a pair of old moccasins. Ray and Grampa miss Oklahoma, but they also know that they are happy, and lucky, to have each other.

Grampa Halfmoon mentions Ray’s father in a few stories. In the “Don’t Forget the Pants!” story, Grampa tells Ray “You look like your Daddy did back when he got married. Except shorter, don’t you know?” It is a sweet moment paired with a pencil drawing of Grampa adjusting Ray’s belt. Another touching moment involving the memory of Ray’s father was during the “Night Fishing” story. Grampa tells Ray, “I used to take your Daddy fishing like this. Back when he was your age. I can still feel ‘im here, now and again.” Ray agreed and the two fished quietly under the stars. Again, this moment is paired with a pencil drawing of Ray and Grampa fishing under the moonlight.

Indian Shoes takes a peak into the lives of two contemporary Native Americans living in a big city, and is a good representation of the modern day Native American. The two tackle life’s ups and down with humor, understanding and respect. Language and dress fall in line with other recent juvenile realistic fiction reads. They experience the same issues that the average American may face. Indian Shoes is a refreshing look at a mixed-blood boy and his special relationship with his grandfather. Recommended for ages 8 and up.

Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies (NCSS/CBC)
Planet Esme's Don't-Miss List, 2002
Finalist, Friends of the Austin Public Library Award/Texas Institute of Letters
Best Children's Books of the Year, Bank Street College of Education, 2003
Cooperative Children's Book Center, 2003
NEA Native American Book List
Chicago Public Schools Fourth Grade Recommended Reading, 2003
Featured title, Texas Book Festival
Children's Crown Award List, 2004-2005
Featured title, Read On, Wisconsin

“Ray Halfmoon, a Seminole-Cherokee boy living with his grandfather in Chicago, is at the center of Smith's (Rain Is Not My Indian Name) slim collection of six tales. Though the author affectingly portrays the strong bond between grandson and grandfather, the narrative bogs down with flowery or overwritten passages.” Publishers Weekly

“Smith adds her voice to the precious few authors portraying realistic contemporary life for Indian children. Although she tells little of his background, the author uses six vignette chapters to introduce Ray, an affable mixed-blood Cherokee-Seminole boy living in Chicago with his Grampa Halfmoon”….” Shoes is a good book for any elementary-aged reluctant reader, and a necessity for indigenous children everywhere.” School Library Journal

“"A very pleasing first-chapter book from its funny and tender opening salvo to its heartwarming closer. An excellent choice for younger readers." Kirkus Reviews

Leitich Smith, Cynthia. 2001. Rain Is Not My Indian Name. Harper Collins. ISBN: 978-0688173975.

Erdrich, Louise. 2002. The Birchbark House. Hyperion Books. ISBN: 978-0786814541

Erdrich, Lise, 2002. Bears Make Rock Soup: And Other Stories. Children’s Book Press. ISBN: 978-0892391721

A collection of short stories portraying the unique relationship between Native Americans and animals.

Critical Analysis:
Erdrich, a Ojibwa tribal member, presents fourteen short stories demonstrating the unique and magical relationship between the Plains People and animals, such as the bear, deer, moose, and crow. “Black Bear Sleeping in a Tree” portrays a tired bear sleeping in a crow’s nest. The People (Natives) hear Crow squawking and come to see what the commotion is about. The bear will not leave the crow’s nest under any circumstances. The women bring out a big bowl of berry soup. This wakes the bear and he finally joins the others. In a different story, the bears aid the People in a great time of need. The “Bears Return the Lost Children” story shows the bears as heroes. After two children wander off in the snow, the People begin to worry when snow falls and darkness comes. The bears are able to find the children before the “spotted ghosts could take them.” The bears grabbed the children and carried them safely home. Confused? Me too!

Just a few stories in, I know that this compilation of stories is way far out in left field. I asked the questions, “Why?” and “What?” at the end of every tale. In the “Bears Return the Lost Children” story we are told that bears can sometimes “roam the edge of the spirit world.” This is how the bears see the ghosts coming for the children. Obviously, the ghosts represent Death, but the reader gets no explanation of why this would be possible. Do all animals walk a line between spiritual and earthly worlds? In a separate story, “Bears Make Rock Soup”, we are told by the women, “Rocks are the bones of the earth” and “They hold mysterious life.” Two sentences later, the bears make rock soup. Again, why? Is this a very poor attempt to portray Native Americans and animals as spiritual beings? If so, what is the meaning of bears making rock soup?

The stories go on and confusion mounts. Moose cry and deer spirits are trapped on Earth because hunters hunted too much. Birds torment panthers by laughing them into exhaustion, and Canadian geese have “strong medicine,” although we are not told what kind or for what purpose. These stories are too high-fantasy to hold cultural value in my opinion. The wild antics and actions of the animals go without any explanation. The reader is continually asking questions after each story. Young readers may be too overwhelmed with the mythical and fantasy elements of each story. Teachers and parents will have a hard time explaining why bears see ghosts and deer spirits are trapped on Earth.

The only saving grace to this picture book is the illustrations by Fifield, an Oneida tribal member. During the Introduction, we are told by the author that the paintings were first and the text followed. This makes perfect sense! The illustrations were absolutely beautiful. They seemed to be the only culturally authentic aspect of the book. The People have a variety of skin tones and the scenery is stunning. The “Broken-Winged Dance of the Loon Clan Women” is especially exceptional. The black and white costumes of the women contrast brilliantly with the muted blues and greens of the marsh and the browns of the hills in the background. The illustrations could easily stand alone. The stories do not measure up. Appropriate for ages 5 and up.

Minnesota Book Award (Multicultural Category), 2003

“. . . Fifield's watercolors, in vabrant earth tones, cover half or two-thirds of each wide spread. Her piecework-like compositions solidly straddle the line between realism and imagination. . .." Kirkus Reviews

“The stylized watercolors carry the narratives, which are ever-so-slightly dull. Lessons are small and obvious; the human-animal connection can be strained, but there is a low-keyed gentleness of spirit…” School Library Journal

Erdrich, Lise. 2003. Sacagawea. Lerner Publishing Group. ISBN: 978-0876146460