Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Native American or Indigenous’ Category

The Country of Wolves by Neil Christopher is based on an animated film adaptation of a traditional Inuit story. While the film seems to have garnered positive response, including awards, reviews of the graphic novel adaptation have been more mixed. I’m of the same sentiment about the book. I disliked the stereotypical depiction of wolves, but otherwise the story makes for a quick read and could result in a lot of conversation in a classroom.

Let me get my negative reaction out of the way, so that I can focus on the positives of The Country of Wolves. Throughout time, wolves have been portrayed as bloodthirsty, cruel, and evil. And while this conception of them might be how Native myths and legends depicted them, I dislike seeing this cliché perpetuated. In The Country of Wolves, the instant that wolves smell man they’re on the trail and the warning is given that they’ll hunt until they kill. In fact the only way to stop them is to destroy their leader. Yet wolves can form emotional attachments, show aversion to fighting, and possess intelligence. Wolves are also a necessary part of the ecosystem. So, while The Country of Wolves might make for a terrifying horror story, it’ll also sadly encourage young people to view wolves as bad. Any educator who uses this book should also combine it with lessons such as this one: Stereotyping and Bias.

The back pages to The Country of Wolves explain that the stories are sacred to The Inuit, they link them to their ancestors and to the land. And versions of this particular tale have been passed on for generations in communities across the Arctic. I did look at many summaries of Native myths and legends, but couldn’t find this one. However, there were plenty which featured the wolf as evil. Also, the author certainly should know the tales, having moved to the region many years ago as an educator. Near the end of Country of Wolves, I learned that there were several references included in the story itself to the spirit world such as Northern Lights and Watchful Moon. Some reviewers suggested this information would have better placed near the front. I’d encourage educators to supplement this tale with materials about Inuit folklore, such as an intermediate graphic novel study which according to Goodminds is provided online at The Nunavut Arctic College.

CountryWolves_Inside

You’ll notice that I’ve referred more than once to educators. Despite my concurring with the mixed reviews, I did find the plot to be haunting and action-packed. It also included a morbid twist. The graphics were also visually pleasing and adequately enhanced the text. The Country of Wolves will no doubt appeal to many boys, as well as folklore buffs. Beyond that, I’d  recommend it for use in the classroom to stir discussions about stereotypes and about Native culture.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Walking Two Worlds introduces young people to the inspiring true story of Ely Parker, A Native American who gained greatness in both the world of whites and the world of his Seneca people. This fictionalized biography by Joseph Bruchac successfully provided me with an understanding of a great American whom I hadn’t previously known. Perhaps due to it being at hi-lo readers, Walking Two Worlds also left me with a desire to know more of what it means to be torn between two cultures.

Fictionalized biographies are a subgenre of biographies. Materials can apparently be freely invented, scenes and conversations are imagined. Indeed, while the majority of the events in Walking Two Worlds are validated in biographical accounts, Bruchac clearly takes advantage of elements allowed in this subgenre. Foremost, he often relies on dialog to create interest in Ely’s story. In addition, feelings are accredited to characters that probably can’t be substantiated with primary or even secondary sources. Then there’s the accuracy of the events themselves. While biographies do talk about an incident in which Ely was ridiculed by British officers because of his poor grasp of English, one that hardened his resolve to learn the foreign language, I couldn’t find any which detail the controversial romance between him and Clara Williams. Students may find it an interesting activity to determine which events are factual, which are more loosely based in history, and which may have been imagined.

Hi-lo novels are intended for struggling readers. They’re written at a lower reading level, but intended to have high appeal through intense action and somewhat complex themes. In telling Ely Parker’s story of how he came to draft the terms of surrender that led to the end of the Civil War, Bruchac found the perfect hook for hi-low readers by revolving all actions around a dream his mother had about her son, one that stated he’d “become a white man as well as an Indian, with great learning; he’ll be a warrior for the palefaces; he will be a wise white man, but will never desert his Indian people….” What young person doesn’t like stories with prophecy and warriors? Moreover, the majority of youth will relate to the feeling of walking between two worlds, in that they spend their teens being torn between childhood and adulthood.

This dream his mom had remained with the family, forever impacting their decisions. After his initial schooling, Ely went to live with relatives in an Iroquois settlement in Ontario where he learned how to hunt, fish, and trap in the old ways. When satisfied with his learning, he returned home and within a short time received admission to Yates Academy, where he quickly mastered the English language and became noted for his oratorical abilities. While at Yates, Ely was often called upon by his tribal elders to represent the reservation in Washington regarding treaty disputes with the United States government. With each one of these decisions, Ely gradually learned to walk between two worlds, as he’d continue to do for the rest of his life.

While I appreciated learning about a great American whom I hadn’t previously known, I did find Walking Two Worlds of limited appeal to me. The characters seemed one-dimensional, rarely struggling with their choices, or making mistakes. In addition, I finished the fictionalized biography wishing Bruchac had spent more time exploring what the emotional side of what it means to walk two worlds. Yet I also realized that hi-lo novels are aimed at a different audience than myself, and so don’t want to get too hung up on what turned me off about Walking Two Worlds. The bottom line is that as an hi-lo fictionalized biography, Walking Two Worlds should have an appeal to its intended audience.

I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie! The character of Junior is endearing and real. Alexie perfectly illuminates the elements that shape the lives of Native Americans living on reservations. To top all the novel’s other merits, the theme of acceptance is perfect for all audiences.

Junior was born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside his skull. If that sounds bad, well, that’s because it could have been. Doctors predicted he wouldn’t live. And if he did live, he’d end up with serious brain damage that left him a permanent vegetable. Instead Junior survives, although not without repercussions. He grows up with a larger than normal skull, as well as huge hands and feet. In addition, Junior wears glasses and stutters. Finally, for several years, he experienced weekly seizures. All of these reasons are why everyone on the reservation bullies Junior by calling him a retard and even beat him up. He turns to cartoons as a way to escape.

If by this point you’re feeling sorry for Junior, let me make clear that there’s more to Junior than his disability. For one thing, like any average fourteen-year-old, he likes to look at girls and their curves. For another, the toughest kid on the reservation is Junior’s best friend. One night when three brothers beat Junior up at a powwow, Rowdy gets revenge on them by shaving off their eyebrows and cutting off their Indian braids. Then there’s the fact, Junior likes school. In fact, he wants so much to learn that discovering his mother’s name in a textbook angers him. To him, it was the saddest thing in the world to study from a book that old, and so he throws it at a teacher. He also likes team sports and literary classics, making him an interesting character. At the same time, Junior also gets scared and otherwise emotional to the point of tears but yet never gives up on what he wants, making him an inspirational character.

After a long talk with the aforementioned teacher, who actually forgives Junior and acts as a mentor, Junior asks his parents to take him to a school outside of the reservation. His reason? Because every adult whom Junior knows has given up on life. They’ve dropped out of school, taken low-paying jobs, turned to alcohol, and given up on dreams. And if Junior stays on the reservation, Junior will end up losing what little hope he still has too. So Junior starts attending an all-white school. Here’s where Alexie shows readers with crystal clear clarity the struggles that Native Americans like him face living on a reservation. If you think Junior had it bad before, now it gets worse. Everyone in his tribe, including his best friend, feels betrayed. And they all let Junior know how they feel through words and punches. On the flip side, no one at Reardon initially feels as if he belongs there either. After all, he’s poor, Indian, and stutters. Girls hold their noses as if he smells and guys tell racist jokes. And even when Junior finally does gain acceptance from his new classmates, it’s only at the expense of putting down his own people, who already have so little in comparison to rich white kids.

Last, but not the least of this novel’s merits, is the theme of acceptance. Over time, Junior comes to realize that his drunken parents do love him in their own way. For one thing, his parents scrimp and save to get Junior to his new school that is over twenty miles away. They also show up for all his basketball games and other special events. Then there’s a particularly poignant moment when he feels forgotten at Christmas, only to have his dad give him a last-minute gift. Over time, Junior earns respect at his new school. He wins the heart of a popular girl when he comforts her after she has a meltdown. By being willing to fight a bully, he actually earns respect of some of the bigger guys. And then once again, there’s an adult mentor, this time in the form of a basketball coach. When it looks as if the team will lose, the coach puts faith in Junior. One of my favorite passages in the whole book is this section: “Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together. You can do it.”

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been on the best-seller list for months. High school English teachers have recommended to me. Back when I was working on a novel about a troubled teen, my writing group recommended it as a model. Now that I’ve read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, all the more unique because it’s actually based on Sherman Alexie’s life, I understand all the praise for it.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

ShermanAlexieHe’s the author of over twenty books, the producer of a movie that won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and winner of a variety of book awards including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and now lives in Seattle. Tomorrow I’ll review his best-selling The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Save the date: February 26!

CHILDHOOD

Born hydrocephalic (fluid on the brain), and expected to die, Alexie underwent surgery at six months of age. Though he survived surgery, Alexie suffered with seizures and bedwetting until the age of seven and had to take drugs. Because of his health problems, Contemporary Literature reports, Alexie did not fit in well with his peers and instead spent most of his childhood reading everything from auto repair manuals to classic novels like Grapes of Wrath.

His father was a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe and an alcoholic who often left the family alone for days. To support her six children, his mother who was of Colville, Choctaw, Spokane and European American ancestry sewed quilts and worked as a clerk at the Wellpinit Trading Post.

ADOLESCENCE

In the eighth grade, Alexie asked his parents to enroll him in Reardan High School, so he could better his education. The school was located twenty miles outside the reservation, and Alexie was the only Native American student. At Reardon, Alexie excelled not only in his studies, but he also participated on the debate team, was elected class president, and became a star player on the basketball team.

His academic achievements earned him a scholarship to Spokane’s Jesuit Gonzaga University, a Roman Catholic university in Spokane. Here, according to Wikipedia, he struggled to find his path. Originally, Alexie enrolled in the pre-med program with hopes of becoming a doctor, but found his anatomy classes made him squeamish. Law didn’t suit him either. The pressure to succeed led him to drink to cope with his anxiety. Finally, he Alexie found comfort in literature classes, as well as discovered an aptitude for writing.

YOUNG ADULT

In 1987, Alexie transferred to Washington State University, where he enrolled in a creative writing course. He began writing poetry and short fiction. His instructor, Alex Kuo, a respected poet of Chinese-American background, served as a mentor to him. Kuo gave Alexie an anthology entitled Songs of This Earth on Turtle’s Back by Joseph Bruchac. Alexie is quoted by Wikipedia as saying this book changed his life because it taught him “how to connect to non-Native literature in a new way”.

Alexie started work on what was published as his first collection, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Viviane Poems, published in 1992 through Hanging Loose Press. Poetry Foundation reports that, with that success, Alexie gave up alcohol at the age of 23 and has remained sober since that time. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies and shortly thereafter received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship.

AUTHOR

In his short-story and poetry collections, Poetry Foundation describes Alexie as illuminating the despair, poverty, and alcoholism that often shape the lives of Native Americans living on reservations. In 1996, he was named to Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists list. Poetry Foundation notes that judges had liked Alexie’s work “because it had something to tell us. Native American life, life on the reservation, is a pretty under-described experience.”

Alexie also became active in film. Smoke Signals, written and directed by Alexie, was a major studio release and is considered the first all-Indian movie. The film took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival.

As noted at the start, Alexie has been the recipient of numerous literary awards too. In addition, Alexie is a highly sought-after public speaker and has been a guest on nationally-broadcast radio and TV programs. In 2005, Alexie became a founding board member of Longhouse Media, a non-profit organization described by Wikipedia as being committed to teaching film-making skills to Native American youth. He now lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.

From Mary Wallace comes a unique picture book. Through its simple text and rich illustrations, An Inuksuk Means Welcome provides a sense of the traditions and customs of Inuit life in the Arctic. Yet does it provide enough?

Built by the Inuit peoples, Inuksuk are stone piles, often in the shape of humans with outstretched arms. Why would the Inuit have built Inukskuk? For thousands of years, the Inuit didn’t built permanent settlements, but instead hunted and fished in the Canadian arctic. These sculptures served as their means of communication, to mark where to find food or shelter. The traditional meaning of the inukshuk is “Someone was here.” or “You are on the right path”.

As you can see then, the Inuskuk is a central image to the Inuit culture. In Wallace’s picture book, it frames her text as an acrostic. For each letter of Inuskuk, she presents an English word followed by the Inuktitut letters, along with a phonetic pronunciation guide for the second. Extra informational text features include an introductory note about the significance of Inuskuk in Inuit culture and a nonfiction page that profiles seven different types.

Alphabet books are a comfortable way to present information. In the case of An Inuksuk Means Welcome, they can serve a dual audience. For those within the Inuit culture, the warm landscape textures serve as a tribute to a traditional way of life. For those outside of the Inuit culture, Wallace engages readers with the text with her expansive paintings and by the inclusion of tiny inuksuit, which creates a hide-and-seek element, into the pages.

InuksukMeansWelcome_Inside

However, in contrast to other informational picture books such as those by Jerry Pallotta, An Inuksuk Means Welcome feels barren. A reviewer for Canadian Review of Materials contends that more text is needed to round out the overview of Arctic life and suggests, for example, that the descriptions of the seven types of inuksuit might have been more useful if they had been included with their explanations in the body of the text where appropriate. I side with the reviewer, leaving me to feel that An Inuksuk Means Welcome is best used only as a starting point. As such, it’s a text that adults might make better use of their young people. The latter I suspect will read An Inuksuk Means Welcome once, along with a multitute of other picture books, but will not store on their shelf of special stories.

The back flap of An Inuksuk Means Welcome says that Wallace has spent much time in the Arctic, particularly in Nunavet, learning firsthand about the impact of Inuksuk. She’s also an award-winning artists, who has spent almost twenty years teaching arts and crafts at the Haliburton School of Fine Arts. An Inuksuk Means Welcome demonstrates her love for the people and land of the Arctic. I just encourage you to seek out picture books with more substance, should you wish to understand the Inuit culture.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?


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