Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Recommended: FIRE STARTERS, by Jen Storm; illustrations by Scott B. Henderson, colours by Donovan Yaciuk

Check out the cover for Jen Storm's Fire Starters: 

Who are those two boys on bikes, riding away from that burning building? Are they the fire starters who set that building ablaze?


Jen Storm's Fire Starters is a graphic novel published by Highwater Press in 2017. Its gorgeous illustrations are by Scott B. Henderson; Donovan Yaciuk did the colours. Here's the description:
Looking for a little mischief after discovering an old flare gun, Ron and Ben find themselves in trouble when the local gas bar on Agamiing Reserve goes up in flames, and they are wrongly accused of arson by the sheriff’s son. As the investigation goes forward, community attitudes are revealed, and the truth slowly comes to light.
In an interview at CBC Books, Storm said that she wanted to:  
..."explore how all the people in a town — the bully, the bystander, the underdog, law enforcement — would react and what their role can be in reconciliation because I think a lot of people hear that word and think really big grand picture and don't see how they can fit into it."
Reconciliation? Some readers of AICL know about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. For those who don't, here's the introduction, from the commissions's website:
There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.
Storm is Ojibway from the Couchiching First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. With her story, she moves reconciliation from a concept to an on-the-ground example of what reconciliation could mean, in action, in a small community that is predominantly White.

Within a few pages, we know that the building is owned by a Native man. We also know that Ron and Ben, the Native teens, did not set that building on fire. We know that it was done by Michael, the sheriff's son, and we know why he did it. Ron and Ben are being held at the jail. People think they're the ones responsible for the fire. When they're let go, they are taunted on the school bus and at school, they're surrounded by kids who call them fire starters. A fight breaks out. There's more of this kind of thing later, at a hockey game.

Finally, the sheriff figures out that it is his son, Michael, who set the fire. After that, the story shifts to a circle justice gathering. It is a Native system of justice. In the next scenes, we see Michael helping to clean up the inside of the burned building.

Storm's story is a very thoughtful look at the two systems of justice. The Native boys are in the White system, being interrogated and intimidated. It is a stark contrast to what the White boy experiences in the Native system of justice. It points to the path Storm is looking for: how a community can heal, rather than how it could punish and inflict more harm on people.

There are two especially poignant aspects to the story. First is the poster on the wall of the building that was set on fire. It is of a Native woman. She's missing, and the poster is asking for help, to find her. For information about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, I suggest you read the news stories archived at Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). The second is Michael's friend. His name is Jason. Though he keeps it quiet, he is Native, too. He's torn between his friendship with Michael and his own strong sense of doing what is right, especially because he--like the Native boys being mistreated by the justice system and the townspeople--is Native.

I recommend Jen Storm's Fire Starter. There's a lot to study, think about, and of course, talk about.

Some thoughts on Jason Chin's GRAND CANYON

I'll likely catch heck from people who think it is unfair to criticize a book for what it leaves out. In some instances, I'd agree. Sometimes, it isn't fair. Sometimes, though, it is.

If you're an American, you think of the Grand Canyon as a spectacular place. It is that, for sure, but if you're a Native person, particularly one from the tribal nations for whom the canyon is significant as a site of origin or of spiritual importance, you may think of it as a spectacular place, but you are also likely to think of it in other ways that you may or may not feel ok to talk about.

The point of view in Jason Chin's Grand Canyon is not a Native one. Kirkus describes the little girl as Asian American. Other than her and her dad, there aren't any people in the book. They're on a solitary journey into the Grand Canyon. I think it helps readers focus on the land and animals of the present, but of the past, too. There are pages where the little girl is transported to the past. All in all, the book is packed with good information. Science teachers will like it, a lot. It has gotten starred reviews from most of the major children's literature review journals. It may likely be considered for awards this year!


I'd like to offer some thoughts on how Chin can "kick it up a notch" (remember the Food Network chef who used that phrase?!).

In the closing pages, Chin touches on the Human History of the canyon. He starts with humans of 12,000 years ago and then moves forward from there, saying:
Later, several different cultures settled in and around the canyon, including the Ancestral Puebloans, farmers and skilled potters who lived in multi-room buildings called pueblos. Today's Hopi and Zuni peoples trace their heritage to the Ancestral Puebloans. It wasn't until Hopi guides led Spanish explorers to the South Rim in 1540 that the first Europeans saw Grand Canyon. 
He follows that with a paragraph about John Wesley Powell being there in 1869 and that in 1919, President Wilson designated it a national park. Then,
The park covers more than one million acres of land and most of the canyon lies inside the park boundary, while parts of it are within the borders of the Hualapai, Havasupai, and Navajo Indian reservations. The canyon remains a place of cultural and spiritual importance for many Native American tribes, including the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Paiute, Apache, Hualapai, and Havasupai.
If a second printing is ahead of Chin, I suggest he replace "tribes" with "tribal nations." And, it'd be great for kids to see a map of the reservations Chin references in that paragraph. Google includes some on their maps. Here's one of that area that shows Grand Canyon National Park. To the left is the Hualapai Indian Reservation; to the right are the Hopi Reservation, the Navajo Nation Reservation, the Zuni Reservation, and at the bottom, the Fort Apache Reservation.

Another suggestion is to bring Native languages into the book. On that first page, where we see the mountain lion descending into the canyon, Chin could use the borders in the same way he did elsewhere in the book. On this first page, they're blank. He could get in touch with the tribal offices for each of the reservations and ask them what--in their language--they call the Grand Canyon. He could do a small sketch of a Hopi child saying "At Hopi, we call it ___" and so on. And on that page about the Kaibab Formation, Chin could add a note about the word, "kaibab" and what it means.

Another addition could be a paragraph about President Wilson's actions to designate it a national park. How did tribal leaders feel about that, then? How do they feel about it, now?

Wouldn't all that additional information be cool? Do you have additional suggestions?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Recommended! C IS FOR CHICKASAW by Wiley Barnes and Aaron Long

C is for Chickasaw by Wiley Barnes (Chickasaw) and Aaron Long (Choctaw), published in 2014 by White Dog Press (Chickasaw Press), is definitely an alphabet book that every library in the country should get!

Here's the cover:

And here's the description:
C is for Chickasaw walks children through the letters of the alphabet, sharing elements of Chickasaw history, language, and culture along the way. Writing with multiple age groups in mind, Wiley Barnes has skillfully crafted rhyming verse that will capture and engage a younger child s imagination, while also including in-depth explanations of each object or concept that will resonate with older children. The colorful illustrations by Aaron Long reflect elements of Southeastern Native American art and serve to familiarize children with aspects of this distinctive artistic style. A supplementary section with questions and activities provides a springboard for further discussion and learning.

The figures on the cover are on the C page, but so are these (below) ... which just makes me want to jump up off my couch and do a fist pump! I love books that have illustrations that place Native people in the present day! This one is perfect because the three people are clearly in modern dress, giving readers a strong corrective to the all-too-frequent Native peoples in the past imagery that most books have in them.

The man on the left is holding a Bible. Though many Native peoples practice their own religions, some practice Christianity, or some combination of both. It is great to have that reflected in this illustration. And the book the woman is holding is a Chickasaw dictionary! Way cool, right? And the guy on the right is likely meant to be astronaut John Herrington. If you haven't gotten his book yet, do that right now:

As you turn the pages of C is for Chickasaw you (of course), encounter another letter of the alphabet. For each one, there's a word in English and the word in Chickasaw, too. Here's a close-up of the 'E' page:

Barnes and Long don't shy away from difficult topics either. The 'I' page is about Indian Territory. The illustration is of a family moving across a map that shows Georgia and Oklahoma. The text reads:
The Chickasaws were forced to settle in this new place
The journey was long with many challenges to face
At the bottom of each page is more information:
Indian Territory was land set aside by the United States for the forced re-settlement of Native Americans. It was created by the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834. The Chickasaws, and other tribes, were forced to give up their land in the east and move to land in Indian Territory. Later it became part of the state of Oklahoma.
 A bonus for teachers is the "What did you learn" questions in the back, and a page of suggested activities.

C is for Chickasaw is a rare book, and I highly recommend it! It is also available as an app. More coolness! More fist pumps! Get a copy for your library or classroom shelf.

Monday, August 14, 2017

John Smelcer's STEALING INDIANS a finalist for the PEN Center USA 2017?

To start, a brief Timeline that I'll add to as additional news articles are published. The timeline starts with the PEN Center USA's announcement that John Smelcer's book is a finalist for its award in the young adult category. Several other articles are in-process and will be added when they are published. Beneath the timeline is background, going back to 2008. 


August 10, 2017

PEN Center USA announced finalists for its 2017 Literary Awards. John Smelcer's Stealing Indians is among the finalists in the young adult category. 

August 11, 11:18 AM, 2017

On social media, people began to talk about his nomination when Marlon James posted the following on Facebook:
If you were at the Wilkes MFA, when I was, then you know full well the living con job that is John Smelcer. This is the man who at our class reading invented a language, claiming that it was an ancient Native American tongue, and he was its last speaker. So a few days ago PEN Center USA (PEN America) nominated his novel "Stealing Indians" in the category of Young Adult. Let's leave the title for another day. This 2016 book has a blurb from Chinua Achebe. Achebe died in 2013. This is the motherfucking fuckery we keep talking about. Why does this alway happen? Why do these people keep making the same stupid mistakes? You werent conned, you were fucking lazy. Seriously, the quotes all over his site from dead people didn't tip you off? The shadiness of his name? You couldn't have done one stinking google search? Nothing? Nothing at all? How can you claim to listen to us, when you keep making the SAME MISTAKES all the time, like the one you made the last 15 times we spoke to you. If this isn't rescinded, I'm done with PEN. Consider my membership over. Real talk.
Kaylie Jones participated in that conversation (more on that below). 

August 11, 12:40 PM, 2017

At its Facebook page, PEN Center USA posted this announcement:
PEN Center USA has become aware of concerns expressed by some within the literary community regarding the nomination of John Smelcer's STEALING INDIANS for the 2017 PEN Center USA Literary Award for YA. Our staff takes these concerns seriously and is investigating them further to determine an appropriate path forward in accordance with our mission to both celebrate literary merit and defend free expression for all.

August 11, 6:25 PM, 2017

Laurie Hertzel of the Star Tribune, published a brief article about the developing story: Marlon James, others join growing backlash against writer claiming American Indian heritage.

August 13, 2:37 PM, 2017

Rosebud Magazine's twitter account posted "Marlon James is wrong. Ahtna is a real language and a real culture. John Smelcer speaks Ahtna, has papers. ANYONE can easily check this out"

Smelcer is an editor at Rosebud Magazine. In his post to Facebook, Marlon did not deny the existence of Ahtna as a language or a culture. His post (see it above) was with respect to Smelcer's claims that he was the last speaker of a language he was presenting at Wilkes. The screen capture below was posted to Smelcer's FB wall at 3:06 PM on August 13:

There was also a second post with a link to an Ahtna 101 video channel, run by "Johnny Savage." Both of those Facebook posts have since been deleted and replaced with this:

August 16, 2017
On her Facebook page, Kaylie Jones posted a statement she provided to PEN USA. It says, in part, 
The James Jones Fellowship submissions are read blind; the judges do not know the identities of the authors who submit. We learned from Smelcer's bio, once the announcement of his win was made, that he was a member of the Alaskan Ahtna Native American tribe. We were, of course, delighted to hear this.
It was not until 2005, when Smelcer was invited to give a reading and participate in the Wilkes University MFA Residency week, that our suspicions about his integrity were brought to the fore. He stated in his bio that he held a PhD from Oxford University. One of our faculty, herself a PhD who had access to an international database of all PhDs granted by universities worldwide, researched his claim and found that Smelcer did not hold a PhD from Oxford. He was immediately dismissed from the Wilkes faculty.
In 2015 the James Jones First Novel Fellowship committee voted unanimously to rescind his 2004 Award. We chose not to pursue legal action, as we simply do not possess the funds to do so.
This entire fiasco is a terrible stain on the reputation and integrity of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and regardless of the outcome of the PEN Awards controversy, I felt absolutely compelled to take a stand.

August 24, 2017
Writing for The Stranger (a weekly newspaper in Seattle), Rich Smith published Meet John Smelcer: Native American Literature's "Living Con Job." It is a deep dive into many of the claims Smelcer has made. Smith quotes from my posts about Smelcer. I was not interviewed for the article.

August 25, 2017
The Los Angeles Times published Writer's claims to native heritage are questioned after PEN Center USA names his book a finalist, written by Terese Mailhot.

August 29, 2017
On August 28, The Huffington Post published YA Author Accused of Lying About Credentials and his Native Heritage, by Claire Fallon.

Later that same day, Rich Smith at The Stranger wrote about PEN Center USA withdrawing Smelcer's book from consideration for its YA award: John Smelcer's Nomination for a PEN Award Gets Pulled, and More Details about His Past Emerge.

Here's a screen cap I made of PEN's announcement:

August 30, 2017
See Alison Flood article, John Smelcer dropped from YA award amid 'concerns' over integrity, published in The Guardian. 

On its Facebook page, Raven Chronicles writes:
"Raven Chronicles worked with Smelcer in early 90s as our poetry editor for a short time. There became questions about his self-described heritage. These questions and about his adoption still haunt him. The entire matter is sad even given all the awful rationalization posted on his website. In the literary world fakery is only applauded when in a bestseller. Now he is finally getting all the notoriety he has always hungered for."

September 13, 2017
On August 30, Erin Somers, writing for Publishers Marketplace, published "Pen Center USA Withdraws Smelcer's Stealing Indians Amidst Claims of Fraud." It concludes with a statement from LeapfrogPress (Leapfrog published Stealing Indians). I am including the statement below, for those who do not have access to Publishers Marketplace. 
"Leapfrog Press has had no communications from PEN regarding the withdrawal of this nomination, and has no information on the reason for the withdrawal, other than an emphatic statement from PEN that the author's heritage was not in question, and the equally emphatic statement that none of the writers making public accusations are speaking for PEN. Leapfrog has seen no evidence, and no writer or media outlet has been able to provide evidence, to support accusations being made on social and in print. Public charges made, such as that Leapfrog Press was created by this author for his own books, and that the Ahtna language is made-up 'gibberish,' can be debunked so quickly that they call into question all public statements from those individuals. Leapfrog Press does not condone any attack against any writer's ethnicity, or the mocking of Native American languages."

A note from AICL: At some point, Smelcer revised the homepage for his website. Prior to this, it had been a lengthy page of claims Smelcer made about famous people he worked with and edited, and book prizes he was nominated for. That page now consists of a single paragraph that includes none of the previous claims. Several other pages from his site are also gone, including the contact page that had "Johnny Savage" listed as his agent.


And below, some background:

January 27, 2008

I posted a brief note about Smelcer's The Trap. Within a few hours I heard from several people that Smelcer is not Native. I had taken him at his word (that he is Native) and was taken aback to learn that his claims of being Ahtna were not accurate. (Since then, I've written about him several times at my site. I've tried to be as clear as possible but the sheer depth and breadth of Smelcer's claims are, indeed, a rabbit hole. I've spent many hours trying to verify what he says about his collaborations with other writers. Here, you'll find a list of the posts that are the product of that research. 

Feb 1, 2008

Roger Sutton, of Horn Book, posted White man speaks about Smelcer. On Oct 2, 2011, "Larry Vienneau" posted a comment, saying "If you are interested in the truth please visit ___ (the link no longer works). Vienneau is an illustrator who has illustrated for Smelcer's books. On October 11, 2011, "blackfeet 1954" submitted a comment about adoption rights. On October 16, 2011, "blackfeet1954" submitted another comment.  

October 17-18, 2008

I was an invited speaker at the "American Indian Identity in Higher Education" Conference held at Michigan State University. Upon arriving and talking with Native professors there, I asked if anyone knew Smelcer. I learned he was already well-known in Native writer networks as making questionable claims about his identity. Some of the talks were taped and are online. In the video of my talk, I recount that 2007 encounter with the book, my calls to the Ahtna tribal office, a phone call from his father, and Smelcer's emails to me. 

July 24, 2009

Diane Chen reviewed Smelcer's The Great Death. In her post, she recounts the background research she did on Smelcer. On October 17 at 1:03 AM and 1:11 PM, "blackfeet 1954" and "Edward Crowchild" submitted nearly identical comments. 

December 4, 2010

Amy Bowlan posted to her blog at School Library Journal, pointing her readers to the American Indian Identity paper I delivered in 2008. Comments submitted on October 7, 2011 by "Crowfeather" (I am fascinated by your ability to self promote, your seeming endless options, and your belief that you speaks for all native peoples and cultures.)and October 21, 2011 by "E. Crowchild" (Ms Reese likes to think she speaks for many natives, but she really speaks for herself.) sound very much like Smelcer's writings on his Ethnicity page at his website ("In no way does Debbie Reese represent or speak for all Native Americans. She’s not even a spokesperson for her own tribe.")

January 8, 2015

I received an email from Kaylie Jones, daughter of James Jones, for whom a literary award is named. Smelcer had won the James Jones award in 2004 for Trapped. In subsequent phone calls with her, I learned that she wanted to rescind the award and had taken steps to remove his name from the list of people who received the award. Note there is a winner for 2003 and one for 2005. 

Spring, 2016

Native colleagues began talking online about some of Smelcer's poems that were on the Kenyon Review's website. Soon after, the poems were removed. Here's a note from David Lynn, the editor:

June 18, 2016
Therese Mailhot, writing for Indian Country Today, published John Smelcer: Indian by Proxy.

July 24, 2016

AICL's review of Stealing Indians.

August 14, 2017
  • For some time now I have been periodically checking to see if Smelcer has removed or acknowledged errors he's made in "Setting the Record Straight" -- a document he maintains at his website. Towards the end of it, he says many things about me that are not true


Note: Because of the nature of this discussion, AICL will not publish unsigned or anonymous comments. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Tim Tingle's WHEN TURTLE GREW FEATHERS -- as a mural!

On July 12, 2017, Tim Tingle (Choctaw Nation) was visiting a library and came upon a delightful mural! Here's a photo of Tim, standing in front of it: 

The child depicted in the mural is reading When Turtle Grew Feathers, which is one of Tim's picture books! I was thrilled to see it and asked Tim to share details as soon as he could. 

The mural is in the Tye Preston Memorial Library in Canyon Lake, Texas. The original bank in Canyon Lake was owned by Harry Preston, who donated the land and money for what came to be called the Tye Preston Library. That building was eventually sold. Funds from its sale were used to help finance the new library. 

A local artist, Linda Jacobson, came up with the idea for the "Wall of Honor" mural in the new library. She sketched out the design, and a local muralist, Brent McCarthy, got to work. He was given access to the library, and would come in often late at night, to sketch and paint. They kept a sheet over the mural until it was complete. Take a look at photographs of the work-in-progress, at the "Making of a Mural" page!

Brent likes to work from photographs. Harry Preston was alive when the mural was painted, and he offered pictures of his mother. As you flip through the photographs, you will her, as well as the little girl. 

Brent wanted to put children in the mural. The little girl reading Tim's book is someone who attends Brent's church. He took her photo. He also wanted local authors to be depicted on the mural. When he asked about a local children's author, Tim's name came up. He and his dear friend, Doc Moore, had done many storytelling performances at the old library. Tim had donated copies of When Turtle Grew Feathers. Brent was shown that book, and, that's how it became part of the mural. 

The little girl and her mother were there when the mural was unveiled on October 20, 2010. 

I love the story of this mural! I love the mural! It is heartwarming in so many ways! 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Beverly Slapin's review of JUAN PABLO AND THE BUTTERFLIES

Back in June, a reader wrote to ask me about Juan Pablo and the Butterflies by J. J. Flowers. I did a "have you seen" post about it and am glad to see that Beverly Slapin, of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children, has a review up now. Here's some excerpts:
Abuela appears to be a shaman as well. She’s an all-in-one spiritual phenom, singularly embodying not only a whole culture’s metaphysics but also bits of other cultures—a mishmash of mythology and mysticism that the author invents. 
Still, it was the old woman’s shamanic powers that were a good deal more popular than her famous doctoring skill. Nothing made his abuela happier than taking away people’s aches and pains, their troubles and struggles. She took away the pain of childbirth as well as the opposite, the struggle of transitioning. She cured little Jose’s [sic / the nickname for “José” would be “Pepe,” not “little José”] poor hearing, but also his mother’s gambling problem, Ms. Sanchez’s strange rash, but also her husband’s infidelity, Mr. Hernandez’s high blood pressure, but also his depression. Occasionally she worked miracles, curing dementia, diabetes, and even many different cancers. People sought her out from hundreds of miles away. (p. 11)

And there's a subsection about playing Indian:

When Juan Pablo and Rocio were children: 
Following his abuela’s suggestion, he and Rocio had built an Indian tepee [sic] in the forest just beyond the meadow. No one else but his abuela knew about it. The tepee [sic] became their secret, a private tent where they passed the endless hours of childhood playing imaginary games: Indians—Rocio was the chief and he was the brave; hospital—Rocio was the doctor and he the patient; school—Rocio was the teacher and he the student; and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—finally, he was Harry Potter and Rocio was Hermione. But lately, as they began outgrowing imaginary games, they hiked up to the tepee [sic] just to read good books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Old Man and the Sea, but also The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games. (p.21)
Since most Mexicans are of Mestizo heritage, they’re “Indians.” That Juan Pablo’s Indian abuela would encourage the Indian children to “play Indian” doesn’t make any internal cultural sense. And, as Indian children, why would they want to enact stereotypical Plains Indians? This is all the author’s cultural assumptions and does not apply to Mexican children who probably did not grow up watching “cowboys and Indians” on 1950s TV shoot-‘em-ups. (JP and Rocio’s “tepee” shows up in a later chapter, when Juan Pablo and Rocio are on the run and hide in this “wooden structure,” which a tipi is not.)
The author also inserts some miscellaneous stuff that misrepresents Indians and Mestizos:
If [JP] squinted against the light just so, he could see the narrowest of paths reaching around the cliff. Probably an old Indian path. Indians used to live here hundreds of years ago, after the Aztecs and before the Spaniards. (p. 81)

Go read the full review! There's a lot of detail there that you'll find helpful. 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Recommended: Daniel W. Vandever's FALL IN LINE, HOLDEN

I love Daniel W. Vandever's Fall In Line, Holden

Published this year (2017) by Salina Bookshelf, it is a terrific picture book about a Navajo boy. Here's the description from the publisher's website:
Fall in Line, Holden! follows Holden, a young Navajo boy, through his day at boarding school. Although Holden is required to conform to a rigid schedule and strict standards of behavior, his internal life is led with imagination and wonder. Whether he is in art class, the computer lab, or walking the hall to lunch, Holden’s vivid imagination transforms his commonplace surroundings into a world of discovery and delight.
Explore the world through Holden’s eyes. Join him for the day, and celebrate the strong spirit of a boy who rises above the rules surrounding him.
In an interview at the Salina Bookshelf Youtube channel, you can hear directly from Vandever about the book and how it came to be. He cites statistics, too, about the lack of books that can function as mirrors for Native kids. My hunch is he saw CCBC's data

Holden--the little boy in the story--is a combination of the author, his dad, and his nephew. Three things that especially appeal to me are...

First, that the little boy's imagination is the heart of the story. Turning the pages, you'll see what Holden sees--and what the rest of us miss--when we stand in rigid spaces. I could easily see teachers using it and alongside John Herrington's Mission to Space 

Second, the art! When people think "American Indian" (or "Native American") a certain imagery or style comes to mind. Vandever blows that expectation away with his own graphic style. Studying it, I'm reminded of Phil Deloria's book Indians in Unexpected Places. We are, and do, so much more than mainstream society knows. In that regard, Vandever's book is outstanding. 

Third, Vandever's notes provide teachers with important context about Native peoples and education. 

I hope he writes another book, and of course, I highly recommend that you get a copy of Fall in Line, Holden! for your classroom or library!  

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Bob White, Colleen Murphy, and Appropriation at the 2017 Stratford Festival

The Place: a church meeting room in Stratford, Ontario

The People: adults in a week-long seminar for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Event: the guest lecturer, Bob White, a dramaturg for the festival
[D]ramaturgs contextualize the world of a play; establish connections among the text, actors, and audience; offer opportunities for playwrights; generate projects and programs; and create conversations about plays in their communities (source of definition is the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas page.

Dare I tell my story the way the dramaturg told his, the day he was the guest at the seminar? Nah. I'll just tell it like it was. 

Bob White told us that he asked Colleen Murphy to submit three one-page ideas for plays that the Stratford Festival could do this year (2017). Of the three, he really liked one that would become the play the festival is doing this year: The Breathing Hole

What, you wonder, is it about? Here's the description from the festival page
Intersecting with Canada’s history from the moment of First Contact to a future ravaged by climate change, this saga follows the mythic adventures of a polar bear to a profoundly moving conclusion.
Specially commissioned by the Festival to mark Canada 150.
Nothing in there that says Inuit... but if you go to the festival page you'll see an Indigenous woman. A polar bear is behind her. Bob White, at one point, said it is an Inuit story and at another, said it isn't. He also said that they were aware of discussions about appropriation of Aboriginal stories and that they wanted to be careful with The Breathing Hole. Like Bob White, Colleen Murphy, is White. 

Aware of the appropriation conversation, Bob White said he set up a meeting with someone who could look over the play and make sure it was ok. That someone, he said, is Indigenous. He may have said that person's name but I don't remember. That person said it was ok. 

The next thing he had to do was to find some actors who would do the Inuit parts. Bob White said he set up a meeting with some Indigenous actors. Here's where his story got kind of interesting as he recounted how he felt as a White guy going into a room of Indigenous people. He could feel the tension. He'd never felt anything like that before. The actors were not at all pleased or happy about the Breathing Hole project. Oh how I wish there was a recording of that meeting, and of what Bob White said to us that day! 

Bob White said that, in the meeting with the actors, there was a lot of back and forth. On the second day of the meeting, all talk stopped. Nobody said anything. They were at an impasse. A few minutes passed. He wondered if it was all over, if the project was going to fail. 

But, he said, he spoke up, stepping into that silence. He told them their voices were being heard and that their voices would be in the program materials. That seemed to make a difference. This--again--is his telling and my remembering of what he said. One way to think of it: he saved the day and the play went on to open as part of the 2017 festival.

I stood to ask Bob White some questions. I'm paraphrasing as best I remember. If anyone reading this was in that room, please share what you heard. 

I said "If I understand what you've said, the Native actors did not want to do this play because it was written by Colleen Murphy, who is not Native. Do you think, if you were to ask the actors if they would prefer a play written by a Native playwright, they would prefer that?"

Without missing a beat, Bob White said that yes, he was sure they would prefer a play written by a Native playwright. Kudos for his honesty.

And I said "But you did this one, anyway?" 

Again, without missing a beat, Bob White said yes. Again, he was being honest, but this reeks of his privilege and power. 

He also said that they agreed to do it. And then he tried to say something about how it isn't really about Indigenous people, anyway. It is about climate, he said. I was pretty irate by then and said something like "Oh, right. It isn't about us, but you're using us because we're so handy for things like this." There was a bit more. Again, I wish I had been recording that seminar!

A day or so later, I started looking up information about Murphy. 

Prior to The Breathing Hole she did a play called Pig Girl that was controversial. The main character is an aboriginal woman working as a sex trade worker, who is captured by a White man and taken to a pig barn where he rapes, tortures, and kills her. In essence, the play is about MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women). Its premier in Edmonton was followed by a discussion. None of the people in the play, or on that panel, were Indigenous. After hearing from Murphy and the actors, Simons (the moderator) invited the audience to participate in the discussion. 

"A very different debate unfolded." she said, because Tanya Kappo, a founder of Idle No More was in the audience. Among her questions was why there weren't any Native people involved in the play or the panel. An Indigenous playwright spoke next. He said the play was exploiting Indigenous women, using what was happening to them as entertainment and that when a play about that is done, it ought to be done by Indigenous people. Another Indigenous actor stood to say that, too. 

In response, Murphy asserted her right to tell stories she wanted to tell. 

See? Colleen Murphy and Bob White knew a lot about appropriation before embarking on their effort to stage The Breathing Hole because she had been critiqued for it--by Native people. But, she and White--in choosing The Breathing Hole essentially said they don't care about what Native people say--they were gonna do it anyway. And they did. 

I got a copy of the program for The Breathing Hole so I could see what space Bob White provided for the Indigenous actors voices.... but found nothing other than the usual acknowledgements. I imagined a page or portion of a page where the Indigenous actors could say... something! Not sure what they'd say, though! They're in a bind. If you're in theater, working/performing at Stratford is an extraordinary opportunity. If they are perceived as too critical, they could be putting their careers at risk. Bob White said they're in other plays, too, and I am sure they are gaining a lot by being in The Breathing Hole and in whatever other plays they're cast in. What I hope for them and the Inuit director--Reneltta Arluk--is that Stratford brings them back again and again--and that the festival commissions a Native playwright for them to perform and work in.


News articles about The Breathing Hole call it an Indigenous story. But Colleen Murphy is not Indigenous. You cannot call her play Indigenous story. It is a White woman's story and it has some Indigenous parts to it--but still--it is a White woman's story. In theme, it is like Brother Eagle Sister Sky by Susan Jeffers, or any of a long list of books by White people who use Native people to make a point. Climate is definitely of primary concern to Indigenous people but I can't help but wonder what a Native playwright would have chosen to bring to the Stratford stage. 

And, I can't help but wonder what impact it would have in other ways. Right now in shops in Stratford, there's a lot of Inuit art. That's been the case for decades (I first went there in 1989), but you'd be hard pressed to find anything by anyone from the First Nations for whom Ontario is their homelands. 

On September 16th, the festival will live stream a forum with First Nations panelists. Here's the info:
Canadians assume that the First Nations have some special place, that they shape our society in some significant way, but history – as well as contemporary actions and attitudes – might suggest otherwise. In a country where the rest of us are immigrants, what do the First Nations represent, what do we owe them, and what of the future? CBC Ideas host Paul Kennedy moderates a discussion featuring Anishinaabe writer Niigaan Sinclair; Dr. Alexandria Wilson, one of the early members of Idle No More; Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson; and indigenous scholar and artist Jarrett Martineau.
This Forum event will be streaming live on our Facebook page on Saturday, September 16 at 10:30 am.

I'll tune in and be back here to add what they say to this post. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Round Up: Letters About the "Indigenous Experience" Panel at USBBY's October 2017 Conference

For the convenience of activists, scholars, parents, teachers, caregivers, and others who study issues specific to Native peoples in children's literature, AICL offers this timeline about USBBY's October 2017 "Indigenous Experience in Children's Books" panel. For each item, an excerpt is provided. Click on the link to see the full post/conversation. Additional items will be added when they are available. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Debbie Reese's post to USBBY's Facebook page
"I looked at the schedule for the conference in Seattle, and saw that there will be an Indigenous Experience in Children's Books panel. In the midst of such a visible effort to promote Native and Writers of Color, I am stunned that not all people on the panel are Native. Can anyone here share some background on the rationale for the panel's composition?(One of the White women is married to a Native man and is a co-author with his mother who was in boarding school, which makes her presence understandable.)"

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Naomi Bishop's Open Letter
"One of the general sessions (that everyone attends) is titled: The Indigenous Experience in Children’s Books. The presenters on this panel include four Canadians (Lisa Charleyboy, Christy Jordan-Fenton, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, Sarah Ellis -moderator) and one American, Nancy Bo Flood. In an email to me, the USBBY President stated that Nancy Bo Flood is not Native. 
“Nancy Bo Flood is the fourth speaker. She has written a number of children’s books several of which have Native American themes.  She is not Native American.”  

The problem with Nancy Bo Flood is not just that she is non-native, but that she appropriates Navajo culture. She states that she lived on the Navajo reservation, taught college students there, and writes books about Navajo’s, but she is not Navajo. It is disappointing to see Nancy on this panel because there are so many wonderful Native American authors and illustrators publishing awesome books here in the US. I am pleased to see First Nations writers on the panel, but wonder why the organizers did not select any writers from U.S. Tribal Nations?"

Debbie Reese's Open Letter
"I was--quite frankly--furious to see Nancy Bo Flood's name on the "Indigenous Experience in Children's Literature" panel. As regular readers of AICL know, I've been studying the ways Native peoples are depicted in children's literature for decades. In that time, I've come to know the work of many people who--like Flood--are not Native, but write books about Native peoples. Amongst that body of White writers, there are many instances in which the writer has done particularly egregious things."

Wednesday, July 27, 2017

Christy Jordan-Fenton's Response to Conversations
"It is not my mother-in-law’s job to defend her people’s right to control how their stories are told. Her voice is for sharing her experiences. It was under an invitation for her to do so that we agreed to participate. If the panel is now openly forcing her into a position of defence, we will have to decline the invitation. However, if we can all work together to realize our learning opportunity from this, and use it as a catalyst to find a better way together, we would be honoured to participate."

Thursday, July 27, 2017 

USBBY President Therese Bigelow's Announcement 
"We are changing the program on Indigenous Voices in Children’s Literature. Nancy Bo Flood will no longer participate. Panel presenters are all from Canada which reflects the international scope of the conference theme. The panel had already begun working on their program together and the Fenton's, through Christy Jordan-Fenton, have requested that Sarah Ellis continue In her role as moderator. This change will be reflected on the program schedule as soon as I return to my home computer next week."

Naomi Caldwell's Letter to Therese Bigelow 
"Notwithstanding, I am compelled to share my thoughts and a suggestion as past president of the American Indian Library Association, founding chair of the American Indian Youth Literature Award, and advocate for the accurate portrayal of Indigenous books for youth. One would think that in 2017 that organizations such as USBBY would be practiced and astute about planning programs to highlight diversity. After all, the membership is comprised of diverse, devoted well-educated and well-read children’s literature professionals who genuinely care about the quality of literature for youth from a national and international perspective."

Christy Jordan-Fenton's Response to Therese Bigelow
"I understand that to many in the non-indigenous literary world, the issue of appropriation feels like navigating a mine field. However, the ultimate goal is not conflict, but rather finding a better way together. When Indigenous perspectives are considered and dialogue is opened, everyone benefits. As I said previously, the act of appropriation or taking up Indigenous spaces is ingrained in our society, and in the mythologies that society is raised on and maintained by. Issues such as the one with the “Indigenous Experiences” panel will come up. And when that happens, they need to be validated and addressed so that we can all work toward a better way. The change in the make up of the panel shows that we can find that better way together. I hope that in the future other organizations will be open to such dialogues and to listening and acting on ways to facilitate and maintain Indigenous space."

Christy Jordan-Fenton's Response to Therese Bigelow's Announcement Regarding Change to "Indigenous Experience in Children's Books" Panelists at USBBY's October 2017 Conference

27 July 2017

Often when issues are raised in the literary world, over appropriation, representation, and making space for Indigenous voices, they are met with justifications, or are ignored all together. The very nature of the mythology upon which the colonial societies of this continent rest, are at the core, stories of taking up Indigenous spaces…quite literally. It is such a rooted part of our collective consciousness that Indigenous voices remain marginalized, even when it comes to talking about Indigenous traditional cultures and contemporary perspectives. And while the appropriation debate has only recently been engaged in by the gate keepers of mainstream institutions, actual understanding and protocols have yet to become a mainstream part of the literary world. Indigenous voices often remain unvalidated and unanswered, while non-indigenous voices are brought in to fill the void created by the marginalization of Indigenous perspectives.

I was very concerned that this would be happening at the 2017 IBBY Conference in Seattle, on the “Indigenous Experiences in Children’s Literature” panel, where space was given to a non-indigenous author, who is largely considered by the Indigenous community to have violated numerous general protocols on appropriation. A large part of my concern with this panel was that the addition of this author would co-opt the topic of Indigenous experiences, making it about appropriation, thus centring around non-indigenous authors, instead of being focussed on Indigenous voices. If you would like to read more about my concerns, you can find them here:  https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.ca/2017/07/christy-jordan-fentons-response-to.html?m=1

I brought my concerns to the attention of Ed Sullivan and the IBBY committee. And as any of you out there who have been fighting to maintain space for authentic Indigeneity know, it can be a very cynical process where all too often, nothing is done. However, in this case, I am very pleased to say that the outcome of this week’s dialogue is IBBY’s announcement that the panel’s original arrangement has been restored. It is back to being a space intended for Indigenous voices. We greatly appreciate the consideration of the IBBY Committee over the concerns raised, and appreciate that the space will be held in a good way, allowing for Margaret/Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton and Lisa Charleyboy their space to have the floor, with Nancy Bo Flood stepping aside.

I understand that to many in the non-indigenous literary world, the issue of appropriation feels like navigating a mine field. However, the ultimate goal is not conflict, but rather finding a better way together. When Indigenous perspectives are considered and dialogue is opened, everyone benefits. As I said previously, the act of appropriation or taking up Indigenous spaces is ingrained in our society, and in the mythologies that society is raised on and maintained by. Issues such as the one with the “Indigenous Experiences” panel will come up. And when that happens, they need to be validated and addressed so that we can all work toward a better way. The change in the make up of the panel shows that we can find that better way together. I hope that in the future other organizations will be open to such dialogues and to listening and acting on ways to facilitate and maintain Indigenous space.

I further hope that when respected Indigenous scholars and artist raise these issues, their wisdom and experience will be heeded, even when they are outside of the organization involved, as they often will be, so that uncomfortable situations between panelists and artists involved are not necessary.

We look forward to participating in this panel. I am encouraged by the IBBY’s actions, and that the matter was used as an opportunity for learning how to better allow such platforms to be about the amplification of Indigenous experiences. The willingness of the IBBY Committee to address the issue shows that we can navigate a better way together. By keeping the matter transparent, and committing to a continued dialogue in the future, everyone who must navigate such situations can advance toward evolving past the ways things have been done in the past.

While I would still like to have seen Indigenous voices from within the colonial borders of the US represented on the panel, space has been made for the current participants, which was the biggest concern. Though I will add, with having a keynote speaker who makes repeated claims to be the only strong Indigenous literary voice out there, I am concerned that a lack of American Indian writers on the panel confirms what that keynote speaker says. There many strong Indigenous voices that could have been included.

For those who will be attending the panel, I don’t want anyone to be scared that the topic of appropriation is entirely taboo. It isn’t, but I ask respect be given to the participants to share their truths and experiences on their terms, and that you reflect on how it is for Indigenous artists to constantly have to contend with the “white permission” question at the expense of being able to speak about their own art.

That said, I would encourage everyone to further engage in conversations concerning appropriation, and to seek opportunities to listen to what Indigenous artists themselves have to say. It is unfortunate that within the scope of the conference as it stands, space could not be found to have this conversation as a separate topic, but that should not dissuade anyone from continuing to learn more. It cannot be assumed that Indigenous artists have the responsibility to educate anyone, but I can guarantee there are many out there who do want to be heard.

To address the question of a non-indigenous moderator conducting the panel, I have no issue with Sarah Ellis as moderator, now that the panel has been restored to its original composition. There are a few issues that can happen with a non-indigenous moderator. One is that when there are diverse voices on the panel, and the moderator belongs to the non-marginalized group, those voices can be drowned out. Even when moderators have the best intentions, ultimately their perspectives and experiences will, in most cases, resonate closer with the panelists who share similar perspectives and experiences. This becomes problematic where the panelists view the issues from very different perspectives. That will no longer be a concern for this panel. Also, there can be times when audience members ask disrespectful questions or ask questions in inappropriate ways, and in my experience, non-indigenous moderators do not always catch what is actually being said, or they do not intervene where they should and give too much space to those voices. However, in the communications we have had with Sarah, she has demonstrated that she is sensitive to the fact these things do happen, especially on indigenous panels, and she has actively sought input from the panelists. I have been very pleased with her approach. This has not been a race issue, but rather one of shifting the balance to maintain the voices of the Indigenous panelists, and I feel confident in Sarah’s desire to give those voices their due platform.

Thank you to the IBBY committee for hearing us. This is a meaningful step in the right direction, and we hope that others take this as an example of how we can all work together toward restoring Indigenous space. I look forward to seeing how the committee carries this experience into the future planning of its events, and how this dialogue can move from being a discussion into meaningful practice for the entire literary community.

Christy Jordan-Fenton
Coauthor of Fatty Legs, A Stranger at Home, When I Was Eight, and Not My Girl