Thursday, May 07, 2015

Indian-as-spirit in SMEK FOR PRESIDENT by Adam Rex

Earlier this year, I did an analysis of the Native content in Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday. I found the ways that Rex used Native characters and history to be troubling. Some see his parallels to colonization of Natives peoples as having great merit, but the story he tells has a happy ending. The colonizers (aliens called Gorgs from another solar system) do not succeed in their occupation of Earth. They are driven away.

Some people also think Rex cleverly addressed stereotypes in the way that he developed "the Chief" in that story, but I disagree, especially given many things he raised and did not address, like the drunken Indian stereotype.

And some people think that we can overlook all the problems with Native content because there are so few books with biracial protagonists. I disagree with that, too. Why throw one marginalized group under the bus for the sake of another?! That seems twisted and perverse to me.

One of the what-not-to-do cautions in the creation of characters of marginalized populations is "do not kill that character." In The True Meaning of Smekday, Rex killed "the Chief."

In Smek for President, Rex commits another what-not-to-do: use a Native character as a spiritual guide. That character? "The Chief." He died in the first book.

Smek for President opens with a series of cartoon panels that tell us what happened in The True Meaning of Smekday. Amongst the panels are these two. In the first one, we're reminded about "this guy everyone called Chief Shouting Bear."

Back in The True Meaning of Smekday, we learned that his name is actually Frank, but Tip (the protagonist in both books) just calls him "the Chief." She likes him--there's no doubt about that--but persists in using the dehumanizing "the Chief" throughout the book.

In the first book, Tip had a run-in with a Gorg. That run-in is depicted in the next panel in Smek for President:

See "the Chief" in the top panel, approaching that Gorg and Tip? He told that Gorg to leave Tip alone. As you see, the Gorg punched "the Chief" (accident is not the right word for what happened!), knocking him out. Tip and J.Lo (he's a Boov) took him to an apartment to get help. That's when Vicky (another character) asks if he'd been drinking.

Towards the end of The True Meaning of Smekday, "the Chief" dies.

But he appears again and again in Smek for President... 

On page 25, Tip and J.Lo are in their spaceship, flying to New Boovworld and looking out the window at Saturn. Tip thinks back to the time that "the Chief" took her and J.Lo to look at Saturn through a telescope. Here's that part (p. 25-26):
"My people called it Seetin," said the Chief. "Until the white man stole it from us and renamed it."
I turned away from the eyepiece and frowned at the Chief. "Until... what? How can that be true?"
The Chief was smirking. "It isn't. I'm just messing with you."
And now, as we skimmed over the planet's icy rings, I said to J.Lo, "I wish the Chief could have seen this."
He'd died over a year ago, at the age of ninety-four--just a few months after the Boov had left Earth.
That passage is another good example of the author taking one step forward and then two steps backward. By that, I mean that it is good to bring up the idea that Native lands were stolen and renamed, but the "just messing with you" (the humor) kind of nullifies the idea being raised at all. It may even cause readers to wonder what part of "the Chief's" remarks is not true. That his people had a different name for Saturn? That white people didn't really steal Indians?

Tip and J.Lo land their spaceship on New Boovworld. On page 74, Tip is inside an office. She hides by climbing into a chute that drops her in a garbage pit:
Back when the Chief was alive, he and I had all kinds of long talks. Arguments, sometimes. So I don't want you to think I'm schizophrenic or anything, but I occasionally imagine the Chief and I are having one of those talks when I need a little company. And I needed a little company.
"Hey, Stupidlegs," said the Chief.
"Hey, Chief," I answered, smiling. And I opened my eyes. He was to my left, standing lightly on the surface of the trash.

I know people will think it is nice that Tip would imagine an Indian person as the one she'd turn to when she's in need of company, but it is like that far too often!

People love Indian mascots. Indians were so brave, so courageous! Never mind that the mascot itself is a stereotype---we real Native people are told we should feel honored by mascots!

People love Indian spirits, too. Remember "Ghost Hawk" -- the character Susan Cooper created? He started out as Little Hawk but gets killed part way through the story. He stays in the story, however, as a ghost or spirit that teaches the white protagonist all kinds of things.

People love Indians that remind them of days long past, when the land was pristine. Remember Brother Eagle Sister Sky by Susan Jeffers? A white family laments deforestation and plants trees. Throughout the book, there are ghost-like Indians here and there.

People love scary Indian ghosts, too. All those stories where a house is built on an old Indian burial ground! Those angry Indian spirits do all kinds of bad things. Earlier this year I read a Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew story where Nancy was sure an angry Indian spirit was up to no good. And how about that angry Indian in the Thanksgiving episode of Buffy the Vampire Killer?

My point is that this trope is tiresome. If you see a review that notes this problematic aspect of Smek for President, do let me know!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

AICL's Best Books of 2015

In December of 2014, I made a list of books that I'd recommended in 2014. It was a list of books that were published in that year.

This year I'm starting the Best Books of 2015 list today (May 6) and will update it as the year progresses. If you're looking over the list and want me to consider a book, do let me know!


Comics and Graphic Novels:
  • Three Feathers written by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Krystal Mateus, published by High Water Press, Inc.
  • Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, edited by Michael Sheyahshe, published by Alternative History Comics
  • Super Indian, Volume II, written and illustrated by Arigon Starr, published by Wacky Productions, Unlimited.
  • The Blue Raven written by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Steven Keewatin Sanderson, published by Pearson.
  • A Blanket of Butterflies written by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, published by Highwater Press.

Board Books:

  • Celebrate My Hopi Corn and Celebrate My Hopi Toys, by Anita Poleahla, illustrated by Emmet Navakuku, published by Salina Press. 

Picture Books:
  • Kamik's First Sled by Matilda Sulurayok, illustrated by Qin Leng, published by Inhabit Media.
  • Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson, illustrated by David Shannon, published by Abrams.
  • The Apple Tree by Sandy Tharpe-Thee, illustrated by Marlena Campbell Hodson, published by Road Runner Press.

For Middle Grades:

For High School:
  • Feral Pride written by Cynthia Leitich Smith, published by Candlewick.
  • Urban Tribes edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, published by Annick Press. 
  • Whistle by Richard Van Camp, published by Pearson. 


Comics and Graphic Novels:

Picture Books:

For Middle Grades:

For High School:
  • Shadowshaper written by Daniel Jose Older, published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine (imprint of Scholastic). 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


Joseph Marshall III is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe. Born and raised on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, he is the author of several books about Lakota people. Last year, I read his The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. I highly recommend it. In 2011, Marshall's book was selected for the One Book South Dakota project. Over 2400 Native high school students in South Dakota were given a copy of it. How cool is that? (Answer: very cool, indeed!)

Yesterday, I finished his In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse. First thing I'll say? Get it. Order it now. It won't hit the bookstores till later this year, but pre-order it for your own kids and your library. Like The Journey of Crazy Horse, it provides insights and stories that you don't get from academic historians.

To my knowledge, there is nothing like it for kids. Some of the reasons I'm keen on it?

First, it is set in the present day on the Rosebud Sioux reservation. Regular readers of AICL know that I think it is vitally important that kids read books about Native people, set in the present day. Such books provide Native kids with characters that reflect our existence as people of the present day, and they help non-Native kids know that--contrary to what they may think--we weren't "all killed off" by each other, by White people, or by disease, either.

Second, the protagonist, Jimmy McClean, is an eleven-year old Lakota boy with blue eyes and light brown hair. Blue eyes? Light brown hair?! Yes. His dad's dad was White. Those blue eyes and light brown hair mean he gets teased by Lakota kids and White ones, too.

Third, it is a road trip book! I love road trips. Don't you? In this one, his grandfather (his mom's dad) takes him, more or less, in the footsteps of Crazy Horse. Along the way, he learns a lot about Crazy Horse, who--like Jimmy--had light brown hair. When his grandfather is in storytelling mode, giving him information about Crazy Horse, the text is in italics.

Fourth, Jimmy's mom is a Head Start teacher! That is way cool. My little brother and my little sister went to Head Start! When I was in high school, I'd cut school and volunteer at the Head Start whenever I could. But you know what? I can't think of a single book I've read in which one of the characters is a head start teacher, but for goodness sake! Head Start is a big deal! It is reality for millions of people. We should have books with moms or dads who work at Head Start!

Fifth, Jimmy's grandfather imparts a lot of historical information as they drive. At one point, Grandpa Nyles asks him if he's heard of the Oregon Trail. Jimmy says yes, and his grandpa says (p. 29):
"Before it was called the Oregon Trail, it was known by the Lakota and other tribes as Shell River Road. And before that, it was a trail used by animals, like buffalo. It's an old, old trail." 
I love that information! It tells readers that Native peoples were here first, and we had names for this and that place.

Sixth, they visit a monument. His grandpa tells him that the Lakota people call it the Battle of the Hundred in the Hands, and that others call it the Fetterman Battle or the Fetterman Massacre. They read the inscription on the monument. See the last line? It reads "There were no survivors." That is not true, his grandpa tells him. Hundreds of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne survived that battle. It is a valuable lesson, for all of us, about perspective, words, who puts them on monuments, why those particular ones are chosen, etc.

Last reason I'll share for now is that Marshall doesn't soft pedal wartime atrocities. Through his grandfather, Jimmy learns about mutilations done by soldiers, and by Lakota people, too. It isn't done in a gratuitous way. It is honest and straightforward, and, his grandfather says "it's a bad thing no matter who does it."

The history learned by reading In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse and the growth Jimmy experiences as he spends time on that road trip with his grandfather make it invaluable.

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, with illustrations by Jim Yellowhawk, is coming out in November from Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams). Pitched at elementary/middle grade readers, I highly recommend it.