Judging Authors by the Color of Their Skin

An Article
Judging Authors by the Color of Their Skin?

Page 1
Judging Authors by the Color of Their Skin? Quality Native American Children's Literature
Author(s): Michelle Pagni Stewart
Source: MELUS, Vol. 27, No. 2, Multi-Ethnic Children's Literature (Summer, 2002), pp. 179-196
Published by: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States

Judging Authors By the
Color of Their Skin?
Quality Native American
Children's Literature
Michelle Pagni Stewart
Mt. San Jacinto College
In 1965, Nancy Larrick's "The All-White World of Children's
Books" identified the extent to which children's literature and
those responsible for publishing it were biased against black chil-
dren. This essay made teachers and librarians more aware of the
dearth of black characters and subsequently characters from other
ethnic groups in children's literature, at least characters who were
not stereotyped or unrealistic. Three decades later, children's
literature has become more diversified, but the debate about
incorporating ethnic characters continues to spark controversy.
These days, the controversy seems to be centered on who has the
right to create ethnic stories and characters, a debate complicated
by the notions of what makes a piece of literature ethnic. Do we
categorize ethnic literature solely by the color of the author's skin?
Or should we instead consider the authenticity and viewpoint of
the text, no matter what the author's origins? And what about
subject matter? If a story written by an Ojibwa author does not deal
with topics indigenous to his or her people but instead tells of a
more universal conflict, would we still categorize that book as
"Native American"?1
I approach this debate over authenticity and quality through the
realm of Native American texts for children's literature. The focus
MELUS, Volume 27, Number 2 (Summer 2002)
on children's literature complicates the debate since the fact that
the books are created for young readers affects how we judge the
literature. Typically child readers judge less well for themselves
than most adults these issues of authenticity and fairness since they
have not been exposed to life, history, literature and people of
other cultures. In order to ensure that young readers see past
stereotypes and insensitive portrayals, ethnic texts may lean toward
didactic content.2 Moreover many authors of books for children
may underestimate young readers' ability to follow plot lines that
are not chronological or that are told from multiple points of view.
Even Native American authors who typically write multiple-
viewpoint, non-chronological novels for adults tend to streamline
the stories they write for children. As a result young readers are not
exposed to Native American narrative strategies, even if they are
exposed to Native American situations and characters.
As my test case I take Sharon Creech, whose 1995 Newbery
medal winner Walk Two Moons brings aspects of Native American
literary traditions to a text with a Native American protagonist. In
so doing Creech has found herself embroiled in the ethnic literature
debate because she herself is not Native American. I will argue that
Creech's Walk Two Moons makes a significant contribution to
children's ethnic literature in that it may paradoxically be read as a
very Native American novel in theme, structure, and style. The
novel merits inclusion in a classroom both because it challenges
our definition of multicultural texts and because it introduces the
unique narrative traditions of Native American literature.
Rudine Sims Bishop identifies three categories of"multicultural
literature," determined by the content of the text rather than the
ethnic background of the author. This coincides with the ideas
many have regarding the authority to create ethnic characters. In a
1997 discussion on the CHILDLIT listserv, a resounding comment
made by many participants was that writers of fiction should be
able to create characters with different skin colors, just as they cre-
ate characters who are not the same gender as they are, who have
different beliefs and ideas, or who live in different places or peri-
ods. Hazel Rochman considers prohibiting someone who is not of
a certain race, ethnicity, or skin color from creating a character of
that race or ethnicity to be a form of "apartheid" (Against Borders
17). That she has chosen such a politically charged word is no ac-
cident since this matter is itself so politically charged. The discus-
sion surrounding the recent United States census reminds us that
one's ethnic background cannot always be neatly pigeon-holed.
In fact, the two sides of the debate over who can create ethnic
characters are not polarized by ethnicity, with ethnic voices argu-
ing that only insiders may depict their own culture, while outsiders
argue for authorial free reign. Participants on the CHILDLIT
listserv took a variety of viewpoints on whether those not of a cul-
ture should write about it.3 African American critic Henry Louis
Gates, Jr. argues that being an "insider" does not guarantee that
one can create authentic literature, nor is the opposite true: "No
human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to
understand, to learn, to inhabit another world" (qtd. in Bishop 42).
The issue is not so simple as whether writers can create characters
different from themselves, for we all know they can. Instead, we
need to consider how well authors create characters of other eth-
nicities for this helps to determine how "good" the ethnic literature
will be.
There is widespread agreement that Native American literature
for children has lacked authenticity and accuracy. Dane Morrison
explains that problems affect current texts on Native American his-
tory: "[T]oo many texts continue to be filled with errors about
American Indians because they neglect recent research. Hence,
they perpetuate myths and... channel our thinking away from the
real people into stereotypes-sometimes silly, often harmful" (8).
Morrison's statement applies as well to the perpetuation of perni-
cious stereotypes in children's literature. Some authors continue to
depict American Indian culture as foreign, as something "other"
that must be brought into the fold of American culture rather than
celebrated for its distinction. Some depict Native American cul-
tures in less than humane (and thus, unrealistic) ways. Michael
Dorris explained that too often, Indians continued to be treated as
if they were the property of children (undoubtedly a reference to
Lynne Reid Banks' The Indian in the Cupboard), and Native
American characters are often not allowed to change, contrary to
the growth of characters in most children's literature (Hirschfelder
vii). Mary Gloyne Byler agrees that American Indians are not
treated fairly in children's books: "There are too many books fea-
turing painted, whooping, befeathered Indians closing in on too
many forts, maliciously attacking 'peaceful' settlers or simply leer-
ing menacingly from the background; too many books in which
white benevolence is the only thing that saves the day for the in-
competent, childlike Indian; too many stories setting forth what is
'best' for American Indians" (Hirschfelder 34-35). While things
have improved somewhat since Hirschfelder's collection in 1982,
which includes Dorris' and Byler's arguments, the state of Native
American children's literature is still bereft indeed.
Critics have attributed the stereotypes in children's books about
Native Americans to the fact that so few have been written by na-
tives. Jon Stott highlights the dearth of Native American authors:
fewer than twenty percent of the books he studied were written by
Indian authors. What makes this particularly problematic is that
many well-intentioned outsiders who attempt to deal with Native
cultures do so ignorantly. Donnarae MacCann found in 1992 that
children's books from an American Indian viewpoint were greatly
outnumbered by those carrying a white bias (140). Morrison cites a
study in which most American Indian scholars and leaders "argue
that Euro-American documents are so inevitably tainted by biases
and falsehoods and. .. Western concepts of history are so invaria-
bly foreign to Indian culture, that almost nothing written by white
academics-no matter how attuned they may be to cultural differ-
ences-can be trusted" (19). The media perpetuate misrepresenta-
tion, according to Debbie Reese, in "'Mom, Look! It's George, and
He's a TV Indian!,"' who finds "stereotypes of Native Americans
that lead [children] to believe either that Indians don't exist any-
more, or that Indians are very exotic people who wear feathers and
live in ways vastly different from their own" (636-37). She and her
daughter coined the term "TV Indian" to represent the false images
of Indians ubiquitous in books and on television shows her daugh-
ter encounters daily. That so many children's books about Native
Americans belong to the genre of historical fiction may compound
this: Bishop suggests an over reliance on historical fiction propa-
gates the myth of the "vanishing Indian" (49), and Reese decries
the lack of depictions of contemporary Native Americans (637-38).
Is the answer simply to require that one be Indian to write about
Indianness, or live in the period to be described? Then a Cherokee
could not with full accuracy and authenticity describe the trail of
tears, without having actually participated in the forced move. Fur-
thermore, within American Indian cultures, the Indian experience
is not monolithic. Since Indian nations are distinct cultures, with
diverse beliefs and practices, can someone from a Pueblo tribe
write about a Chippewa character with accuracy and authenticity?
R. David Edmunds questions whether one voice can speak for all
American Indian experience: "Do historians who are members of
the tribal communities possess particular insight into these histori-
cal issues? Are their insights into recent events more valid than
those in the distant past? Can historians (non-Indian) who are not
members of the tribal communities speak with an 'Indian voice?'
[sic]" (cited in Morrison, 20); Morrison continues, "Who speaks
for the Massachusett, for instance? Given the documentary evi-
dence that suggests that the tribe died out during the nineteenth
century, who speaks for them? In the same vein, we might ask, can
Native men accurately present the experience of Native women?"
(20). Is one Indian's writing about another tribe, therefore, any
more authentic than the writing of an "outsider"?
Certainly a Native American may understand what it means to
be Native American in ways that an outsider cannot. For example,
of two picture book versions of Native American Cinderella sto-
ries, the one written by a non-native, Rafe Martin's The Rough-
Face Girl, is more problematic than Penny Pollock's The Turkey
Girl: A Zuni Tale, even though Pollock, from the Wyandotte tribe,
is telling a tale of the Zunis. Martin's version of an Algonquin tale,
as Stott notes, implicitly emphasizes European cultural values and
exhibits inaccuracies (Stott 25). Martin's book also ends with
"They lived together in great gladness and were never parted,"
echoing the "And they lived happily ever after" ending of many
European tales, which is not characteristic of Native American sto-
In contrast, Pollock's version relies on Native American rather
than European American structures and beliefs. It is a "pourquoi"
story, a type of folktale that explains how things came to be, a trait
typical of Native American oral tradition. The young girl promises
her turkey friends that she will return by sundown, but when the
time comes to leave, she tells herself she does not need to heed
them because they are only turkeys. When she does return home,
the turkeys are gone, thus ending the tale and revealing a great deal
about American Indian culture. Because the girl does not stay true
to her word and because she places herself above the animals, she
is punished by losing the turkeys forever, thereby emphasizing two
significant values found throughout Native American cultures:
first, that humans are a part of, not superior to, the animal kingdom
and so must recognize the significance of animals in the world, and
second, that what a person says must be adhered to, for one's word
represents one's integrity. As a result, this pourquoi tale explains
why "From that day unto this, turkeys have lived apart from their
tall brothers, for the Turkey Girl kept not her word." The final line
of the book reads, "Thus shortens my story," an ending more typi-
cal of American Indian oral traditions than a "happily ever after"
This example seems to confirm Bishop's belief that those from
within a culture are more apt to reflect the beliefs and values of the
culture appropriately than someone outside it; their works are more
likely to find acceptance by insiders. Yet as Bishop explains:
My claim here is not that an author from one group cannot write
worthwhile books about another group, but that the resulting literature
is not likely to be claimed by members of the featured group as
THEIR literature. Reading the literature of insiders will help teachers
learn to recognize recurring themes, topics, values, attitudes, language
features, social mores-those elements that characterize the body of
literature the group claims as its own. (46-47)
Bishop advocates, not that outsiders avoid writing about the culture
of other ethnicities, but that those who do so take care to reflect ac-
curately the experiences and literature of that culture. Indeed, au-
thenticity is perhaps the most important criterion in evaluating eth-
nic literature. Rochman agrees: "Yes, authenticity matters, but
there is no formula for how you acquire it. Anybody can write
about anything-if they're good enough. There will always be in-
authentic or inaccurate books, and defining authenticity on some
exclusionary basis or other won't change a thing. The only way to
combat inaccuracy is with accuracy-not pedigrees" (Against Bor-
ders 23).
With Native American children's literature, then, what we must
consider when evaluating the texts is not solely who the author is.
Certainly we should avoid books that continue to promote stereo-
types or exhibit inaccuracies in the illustrations or story lines, and
we should consider the accuracy of the illustrations with respect to
the specific tribe being depicted, including geographical accuracy.
Not all Native American tribes are alike, and many problematic
books lump together or confuse tribes.4 The resounding claims of
authenticity and accuracy as key elements of good ethnic literature
explain why so many are wary of further outsider attempts at creat-
ing it since so much ethnic literature for children has not met these
In short, many children's literature critics agree that books writ-
ten by non-natives are not necessarily bad. In a scathing critique of
Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground (1999), a group of In-
dian critics, librarians, and authors notes that their criticism of Ri-
naldi's work is not related to her skin color: "Some non-Indians
have written quality books about Native peoples, histories, and cul-
tures, so it won't be argued here that only Native authors can write
Native-themed stories" (Atleo 28). For instance, critics generally
find white authors Scott O'Dell and Jean Craighead George, of Is-
land of the Blue Dolphin and Julie of the Wolves, respectively, to
be strong advocates for Native beliefs and culture.5 As I will argue
shortly, Sharon Creech's novel Walk Two Moons also makes a sig-
nificant contribution to children's literature, despite her non-native
Ironically, we seem to judge authors differently because of the
color of their skin, resulting in a more critical reception of "outsid-
ers" than of "insiders." Rochman explains that for a book to be
good, it must break down stereotypes and create complex and
flawed, rather than noble, characters: "[Good books] unsettle us,
make us ask questions about what we thought was certain. They
don't just reaffirm everything we already know" (Against Borders
19). On the CHILDLIT listserv, Deborah Churchman concluded
"Writers need to be able to write about the whole of reality, not
just the nice parts." Paradoxically, negative portrayals by outsiders
may be accused of bias, while we may accept them from insiders.
It seems, then, we may create a double standard harmful to ethnic
writers that no more solves the "problem" of ethnic literature than
does limiting who can write such literature.6
A cascade of similar debates has been released by Sharon
Creech's children's novel Walk Two Moons. Despite winning a
Newbery medal, Walk Two Moons has received mixed reviews. In
the New York Times Book Review, Rochman explained that some
critics lauded Creech's storytelling ability, but others criticized her
many plot contrivances. Moreover, some critics denied Creech au-
thority to write about Indianness since she herself is not a Native
American (Rochman, "Salamanca's Journey" 24).7 Yet Creech did
not claim an American Indian identity for herself, as Indian impos-
ters Jamake Highwater and Forrest Carter have.8 In her Newbery
acceptance speech, Creech admitted that, growing up, she was told
by some cousins she was American Indian, an idea which intrigued
her: "As a child, I loved that notion, and often exaggerated it by
telling people that I was a full-blooded Indian. I inhaled Indian
myths, and I crept through the woods near our house, reenacting
these myths, and wishing, wishing, for a pair of soft leather mocca-
sins. (I admit... that my view of American Indians was a romantic
one.)" (421). Her fascination with Native American mythology ex-
plains her decision to create in Salamanca an Indian character who
finds solace in American Indian stories.
Walk Two Moons should not be dismissed as a "politically cor-
rect" choice but instead be recognized for its contribution to multi-
cultural children's literature. Stott, in offering criteria to evaluate
Native American texts, suggests the following queries: "Is the
book accurate?"; "Is it free of stereotypes?"; "How well do[es the
book] embody the cultural realities [it] depict[s]?" and "To what
extent do [the author's] methods of presentation relate to the novel-
istic techniques of Native writers?" (148). In particular, Creech's
novel responds well to Stott's last question since Walk Two Moons
deploys many of the literary techniques found in American Indian
literature, contrary to most children's novels which, Stott argues,
tend to be written in a linear fashion and to focus on the develop-
ment of a single character (148). In fact, Native American literary
narrative, with its roots in oral tradition, differs from Western liter-
ary traditions by utilizing multiple narrators or multiple perspec-
tives to emphasize the communal aspect of storytelling. Since the
Native American view of time is cyclical rather than linear, texts
may not follow a chronological order. Thus readers must be aware
of shifts in perspective and time, as well as recognize the signifi-
cance of the storytelling itself to the story. Creech captures the
sense of multiple perspectives in interweaving the stories of Sala-
manca (both past and present), of Phoebe, and of Sal's grandpar-
ents as the story progresses. Creech utilizes multiple storytellers, in
part by having Sal, Gram, and Gramps tell stories, and she under-
scores the significance of storytelling through subtle details. For
instance, Mr. Birkway, Sal's English teacher, reads excerpts from
the students' journals, momentarily yielding the story to another
point of view, to another storyteller, which reflects the Native
American belief that stories do not belong to one voice or perspec-
In addition, Creech incorporates the essence of storytelling
through various stylistic devices. For instance, in using parenthe-
ses, she reminds us of an audience's reaction. "'Do you want to
know an absolute secret?' Phoebe said. (I did.) 'Promise not to
tell.' (I promised.)" (Creech, Walk Two Moons 23). We also see
audience interaction-an important aspect of oral tradition which
is often lost in the translation to the written word-through Gram
and Gramps Hiddle. They have asked Sal to tell a story yet often
interrupt her as they recall their own stories or comment on Sal's.
This interaction between Sal and her grandparents depicts storytel-
ling practices. A storyteller must account for interruptions, for re-
actions from the audience. In fact, as Leslie Marmon Silko recog-
nizes, storytellers thrive on this: "[S]torytelling always includes the
audience, the listeners. In fact, a great deal of the story is believed
to be inside the listener; the storyteller's role is to draw the story
out of the listeners" ("Language" 50).
Paula Gunn Allen explains the differences between Native
American and Christian beliefs and the literature that ensues from
them. She says that rather than view events in a chronological, lin-
ear, and hierarchical way, Native Americans view events in rela-
tion to other events. For them, time is cyclical and space is linear,
thus making events more dynamic (59). In contrast to Western lit-
erature, American Indian literature does not focus on the resolution
of the conflict, nor does it revolve around a central character or
hero, which would tend to hierarchize events in the literature. In-
stead, the focus is on the community and the way each character's
life revolves around and influences the lives of others; ultimately
the interaction among the people is what is important, for integra-
tion of the individual into the larger communal group is what
American Indian ceremonies, which rely on oral tradition, strive
for (55-60). Although a children's novel, Creech's Walk Two
Moons clearly demonstrates aspects of Allen's definition. In addi-
tion to multiple perspectives and the reliance on storytelling, Walk
Two Moons also does not follow a linear chronology. In Walk Two
Moons the shifts in time occur because of the shifts in story, but
when Sal is telling Phoebe's story, the narrative time becomes that
of when it happened. We become immersed in that story and forget
that this is a retelling of events. In this way, Creech captures the
timelessness inherent in Native American literature.
Other characteristics of Native American literature can be found
in Walk Two Moons. For one thing, Native American myths are in-
corporated when Sal remembers her mother telling her the Black-
foot creation story of Napi9 and when Sal tells her grandparents her
mother's explanation for why the sky is so high.10 In these epi-
sodes, Creech has utilized a technique found in many Native
American novels, that of incorporating narratives that have been
passed down from generation to generation such as those of Leslie
Marmon Silko's Yellow Woman in Storyteller, N. Scott Mo-
maday's bear stories in House Made of Dawn, or Louise Erdrich's
tales of Misshepeshu and Nanobozho in Tracks.
Creech has also depicted Native American cultural beliefs
through dreams Salamanca has about her mother. Native Ameri-
cans view dreams as messages from the spiritual world since they
are the only medium through which people on earth can receive the
truths of the other world (Lincoln 100-08). For some tribes, such as
the Cherokees, dreams can contain an omen of something bad
about to occur: as Thomas E. Mails explains, "Should someone see
the apparition or appearance of a friend come and then quickly
vanish, that friend would soon die" (128). In one of Sal's dreams,
she sees herself floating with her mother on rafts as they look up at
the sky which is moving closer and closer to them. They hear a
popping sound and then find themselves in the sky. Sal's mother
says, "We can't be dead. We were alive just a minute ago" (153-
54). In another dream, Sal sees her mother climbing up a ladder,
going up and not coming back down (169). These dreams carry
special significance since they foreshadow the end of the book in
which Sal is forced to come to terms with her mother's death.
Gramps Hiddle also embodies Native American perspectives,
despite his not being American Indian himself. Gramps has subtle
characteristics of the trickster, a complex but significant Native
American figure. A trickster can take many forms: he is known for
attempting to gain something, usually food or sex, but having his
attempts backfire. He is often a humorous character, meant to in-
struct the audience as they vicariously test social mores, only to
discover that they are better off following the rules of social order.
When Gramps attempts to help the woman stranded at the rest
stop, he actually makes matters worse: not only has he not fixed
her "car-bust-er-ator," but he has also removed her hoses, the
"dang snakes" that he thinks might be her problem, and dismantled
her engine (27-28). Although this situation does not find Gramps
engaged in an activity for his own selfish motives, his actions, in
which his attempts to gain something backfire, certainly are sug-
gestive of the trickster. Another aspect of a trickster character in-
volves transforming: changing shape so as to trick someone into
giving him what he wants. Gramps displays this quality when he
adopts the identity of a veteran to keep from having to pay the
parking meter. Additionally, Gramps' joking with Gram about
Gloria is suggestive of the trickster's lascivious ways, but in a very
tame fashion befitting a children's novel.
Further characteristics of Native American literature can be
seen in some of the ideology espoused by the characters, as when
Sal and her grandparents are accused of trespassing on private
property, and Gramps responds that rivers are not private property,
reflecting the Native American view that nature and land cannot
and should not be owned by man. Sal's connection to trees also re-
flects the view that man is connected to nature. She describes the
singing tree (which her grandmother calls a good sign) and the way
it did not sing the day "[her] father learned that [her] mother was
not coming back" (100). Sal's journal entry tells of her mother and
then of herself kissing the sugar maple, and of her own tendency to
kiss trees (which the other children find unusual). When Sal draws
a picture of her soul as a "circle with a large maple leaf in the cen-
ter, the tips of the leaf touching the sides of the circle" (130), in
contrast to the other students' depictions of their souls as a bus or a
spaceship or a cow, we see the extent to which nature is a part of
Sal's soul; the leaf surrounded by a circle evokes a Native Ameri-
can emphasis on circles in storytelling and in time (the cycles of
the sun and moon, seasons, etc).
Ultimately, Creech's novel, like so many Native American nov-
els, is about Sal's search for identity. That Salamanca compares the
labels "Native American" to "American Indian" several times in
the novel demonstrates the identity conflict in which she is em-
broiled. Louis Owens explains that finding one's identity is the key
to Native American literature: "The recovering or rearticulation of
an identity, a process dependent upon a rediscovered sense of place
as well as community, becomes in the face of such obstacles a
truly enormous undertaking. This attempt is at the center of
American Indian fiction" (5). Even as she tells about Phoebe's re-
action to her mother's leaving, Sal herself is coming to terms with
her own mother's leaving. Having observed the Winterbottom
family from an objective perspective, she understands why Mrs.
Winterbottom might have left. In so doing, she begins to question
her mother's reasons for leaving. Her grandparents try to make her
aware of the similarities between her situation and Phoebe's:
"They didn't say anything, but there was something in that look
that suggested I had just said something important. For the first
time, it occurred to me that maybe my mother's leaving had noth-
ing whatsoever to do with me. It was separate and apart. We
couldn't own our mothers" (176). Like typical Native American
protagonists, then, Sal's quest involves finding her identity, which,
in Native American literature, often necessitates reconciling one-
self with others in one's family, community, or tribe. That her
identity is wrapped up in her mother more than her tribal culture
reflects how far removed she really is from her Seneca roots.
Sal's coming to terms with her mother's death through storytel-
ling also reflects her Indianness. In telling Phoebe's story and re-
membering her life with her mother, she begins to retell her
mother's stories, thus gaining the passion for stories her mother
had that Sal obviously shared but did not recognize, again empha-
sizing the significance of storytelling in Native American culture.
Sal hears once more the sugar maple tree singing, which symbol-
izes her mother's "voice" in that her mother, whose nickname is
Sugar, has a maple tree engraved on her tombstone. After seeing
the engraving and realizing her mother is not returning, Sal hears a
birdsong: "The birdsong came from the top of the willow and I did
not want to look too closely, because I wanted it to be the tree that
was singing. . . . [She says] '[My mother] isn't actually gone at all.
She's singing in the trees"' (268). Through Sal's physical and
emotional journeys, she is able to accept that her mother is dead
and that she is not to blame. In addition, she learns to open her
mind and heart to Mrs. Cadaver since she was the last person to
hear the stories of Sal's mom. In retelling the stories, then, Sal
takes her place as the storyteller, an important site with respect to
her culture and identity.
William Bevis describes "homing in" as the method by which
Indian characters are reconciled to their identity as Native Ameri-
cans. Contrary to the white American novel whereby a character
gains self-identity by leaving home-and would be considered a
failure if he were to return to the fold-Native American novels
are characterized by protagonists who need to return home and
connect with their community in order to begin to understand their
identity as Native Americans. In coming to terms with Phoebe's
relationship to her mother and with her mother's life and stories,
Salamanca is able to make sense of her own life and her mother's
death. Yet many argue that Walk Two Moons is not Native Ameri-
can because Sal and her mother are not very attuned to their Se-
neca heritage; after all, Salamanca's name comes from what her
mother thought was the name for her tribe. However, this idea is
precisely what makes Creech's story a realistic depiction of a con-
temporary American Indian. A number of Indians these days are
not in touch with their Indianness: part of their "homing in," in
fact, results from their learning more about their culture, as both
Sugar-who later asks she be called Chanhassen, her Indian
name-and Sal do. That Sal relays Blackfoot and Navajo stories
and Sioux history does not mean Creech is assimilating tribes;
rather, it demonstrates that Sal is unsure of her Seneca traditions,
just as her mother was, but that she values her American Indian
heritage all the same. Furthermore, as Rochman recognizes in her
review of Walk Two Moons, "For once in a children's book Indians
are people, not reverential figures in a museum diorama. Sal's In-
dian heritage is a natural part of her finding herself in America"
(24). If many books about Native Americans do not deal with is-
sues and conflicts among contemporary Native Americans, Creech
does so, frankly.
While I am not arguing that we should replace ethnic texts writ-
ten by someone within the culture with those written by someone
outside the culture, I do suggest that the debate is not so straight-
forward as mere "membership" might suggest. Certainly novels
such as Michael Dorris' Sees Behind Trees and Beatrice Culleton's
In Search of April Raintree deserve attention in the classroom, yet
neither of these novels introduces students to the complexity of
Native American literary traditions to the extent that Sharon
Creech's Walk Two Moons does.11 Historical fiction by Dorris
(Morning Girl) or by Louise Erdrich (The Birchbark House) may
give a better sense of characters who understand and appreciate the
values and traditions of their specific tribes.
But young readers also need realistic fiction about what it
means to be a Native American in contemporary society. Cynthia
Leitich Smith's Rain is Not My Indian Name uses a contemporary
setting and recognizes that the conflicts with which a young Native
American struggles extend beyond her cultural identity; moreover,
the novel tells the story of Cassidy Rain Berghoff through her writ-
ten journal and through her "spoken" story. In utilizing this double
structure in the novel, Smith echoes Native American literary tradi-
tions: the dual voices suggest a multiple viewpoint, the journal en-
tries deconstruct the chronological structure suggested by the dates
given at the beginning of each chapter, and the "spoken" sec-
tions-longer than the "written" journal entries privilege oral
over written stories. Yet children's books about contemporary
American Indians are few, and books like Creech's Walk Two
Moons, which can introduce young readers to the style of Ameri-
can Indian literature, are even more difficult to find. Because mul-
ticultural books should not be chosen merely to teach young read-
ers the meaning of tolerance or to inform them about different eth-
nic cultures (Bishop 48), Creech's Walk Two Moons has a place in
multicultural literature, alongside the growing number of books
written by Native American authors.
Walk Two Moons is a valuable novel, then, not just because it is
exemplary children's literature but also because it integrates
American Indian literary tendencies. Even though it is not written
by a Native American, Newbery-Award winning Walk Two Moons
can introduce young students to characteristics of the literature and
culture in ways that N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn
cannot because of its complexity and subject matter; the book has,
in fact, been banned in some places as unsuitable for high school
students. Moreover, Creech's novel is a coming-of-age story, ap-
propriate for any child, of any culture. As Creech herself explained
in her Newbery acceptance speech: "I don't see Salamanca as a
Native American; I see her as an American, who, like me, has in-
herited several cultures, and who tries to sort out who she is by
embracing the mystery of one strand of that heritage. Salamanca
needs those stories of reincarnation; they give her hope" (422).
Creech's novel gives us hope that ethnic literature can be written
effectively by those outside the culture being depicted.
1. The term "Native American" is politically charged: some say it is a term used
only by outsiders, not by people of Indian blood, while others prefer "Native
American" over "American Indian" since the latter privileges American rather
than native, suggesting what one views as the "proper" terminology varies from
person to person. Moreover, the terms "Native American" and "American In-
dian" incorrectly suggest uniformity among peoples of various tribes. When I
am discussing selected aspects of the various cultures that are similar, I will use
the more generalized terms, despite the problems inherent in their use.
2. Such didacticism affects Bruchac's novel, The Heart of a Chief, which does a
wonderful job of making young readers aware of the many cultural degradations
American Indians frequently encounter, such as school mascots or Pocahontas
dolls, but is heavy-handed overall.
3. See http://www.dalton.org/libraries/fairrosa/disc/mc.2.html.
4. For further discussion of Native American books for children, see Byler;
Caldwell-Wood and Mitten; Hirschfelder; MacCann; Kruse and Homing;
Rochman; Slapin, Seale, and Gonzales; Stott; and Wiget. Oyate's website in-
cludes both books to avoid and books to read: see http://www.oyate.org.
5. Stott considers Island of the Blue Dolphin a good book, but finds O'Dell does
not develop the mythological ties or spirituality of his protagonists. While not
necessarily stereotyping or misrepresenting Karana, O'Dell does not fully depict
what would have been the mind set of the young character (150-53). Ironically,
he argues, O'Dell was writing during the Native American Renaissance when
"contemporary Native authors were portraying their protagonists discovering the
elements of their spiritual pasts and seeking to perceive the unities informing
these and then living healthy lives within them" (160). In contrast, MacCann
does not find George's The Talking Earth to be as culturally sensitive as Stott
sees it (147).
6. Rochman, in her discussion of the "apartheid" resulting from prohibiting out-
siders from writing ethnic literature, criticizes the way these practices also limit
ethnic writers to ethnic subjects. She cites as an example children's author Vir-
ginia Hamilton, who complained that critics would not let her write anything
that was outside black experience (Against Borders 21-22).
7. Rochman's comments are supported if one consults Children's Literature Re-
view (volume 42): Kirkus Reviews said "Sal's poignant story would have been
stronger without quite so many remarkable coincidences or such a tidy sum of
epiphanies at the end"; Cooper, in Booklist, said Creech's "surprises" are obvi-
ous and contrived, where Connie Tyrrell Bums' review in School Library Jour-
nal finds Walk Two Moons to be a "richly layered novel about real and meta-
phorical journeys" and Deborah Stevenson, in Bulletin of the Center for Chil-
dren's Books also enjoyed the multiple layers and Creech's "smooth and imagi-
native" style (41-42). Similar arguments on both sides can be found on the
CHILDLIT listserv discussion archive about Walk Two Moons found at
8. Much controversy surrounds both Highwater, author of Newbery Honor book
Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey (1977) and Carter, author of The Educa-
tion of Little Tree (1976). Jolivet discusses some of the controversy surrounding
Highwater, explaining that while he claims a Blackfoot/Cherokee heritage,
many believe this heritage was fabricated in order to sell the book, since he has
not been able to substantiate his Indian background (163-69). Forrest Carter has
been identified as Asa Carter, former Klansman and speech writer for George
Wallace. Although Carter does seem to have some Indian blood, many critics at
the least want The Education of Little Tree to be labeled as fiction rather than
non-fiction, as it currently is. For further information, see articles by Leland and
Peyser, McWhorter, Clayton, and Time magazine's "Little Tree, Big Lies?"
9. In the version given in Creech's novel, Napi determined whether people
would live forever or die by dropping a stone into the water. Because the stone
sank, he determined that people must die. Similar versions of this creation story
can be found in Erdoes and Ortiz (see 469-70) and in Leeming and Page (see
10. Sal's mother explains that when the sky was lower, people bumped their
heads on it, so they pushed it up with long poles (144). A version of this tale,
"Pushing up the Sky," can be found in Erdoes and Ortiz (95-97). Erdoes and
Ortiz identify this tale as a Snohomish story. (Creech's novel does not identify
from which tribe the story came.)
11. Dorris' Morning Girl does have two alternating narrators, much as Erdrich's
Tracks does, but his book is written in a much more linear fashion than Creech's
and is historical fiction.
Works Cited
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