Undefeated

by Steve Sheinkin
First sentence: “Jim Thorpe looked ridiculous and he knew it – like a scarecrow dressed for football, he’d later say.”
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Content: There are problematic elements regarding Native representation. It’s in the kids biography section of the bookstore.

As part of our Native people unit in this class I am taking, we had to choose a problematic book to read. I was super surprised to see Sheinkin’s work on the list for problematic; I have a hih respect for his work, and assumed that all of his research wa sipeccalbe.

In this instance, he’s looking at the Carlisle Indian School, a residential school — for “civilizing the natives” — run by the government in the late 1800s though the early 1990s. They ended up with a football program, one that went up against the “big” schools of the time — Harvard, Penn, Yale, and Princeton — even though they were a lot smaller and more poorly equipped. It’s also the history of Jim Thorpe, who ended up being the one of Carlisle’s — and possibly the sport’s — greatest athletes. Where Sheinkin ends up being problematic is in the way he talks about the school and about Thorpe’s Native history. As a white person, Sheinkin doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know, and doesn’t know what it is how it is that he needs to write about it. It makes sense that the book would end up being problematic. .

Truthfully, the part of the book I found most fascinating was the history of football. Sheinkin is an excellent writer and was able to write about the games in a way that made them leap off the page. It was interesting to learn about what the game was like in the early days. And it was interesting to learn the role that Carlisle Indian School played in developing and changing the game.

So, yeah: problematic. But still interesting.

Elatsoe

by Darcie Little Badger
First sentence: “
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Content: There are a couple instances of mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but it’s appropriate for younger readers, if they’re not turned off by the length.

Ellie is an Apache living in an alternative Texas where there are monsters, fairy rings to travel in, and she can raise ghosts. It’s an old family gift, and they only use it to raise the ghosts of dead animals. More specifically, for Ellie, the ghost of her beloved dog, Kirby. When her cousin, Trevor, appears to her in a dream saying that he’s been murdered, Ellie takes it upon herself to go down to the town where Trevor is and try and figure out what happened. However, there are secrets in Willowbee. Ones that could put Ellie and everyone she holds dear in danger.

I really liked the premise of this one: ghosts and monsters and vampires and fairies all superimposed on the current United State, plus a murder mystery? Yes! However, this one lost me when it just couldn’t figure out who the audience is. Ellie is seventeen, but she acts like a 13 year old. It feels like a middle grade book: illustrations, short chapters, simpler language. The only reason Ellie is 17, I feel, is so she can drive. There’s no romance, the swearing is pretty mild… it’s not really the YA that YA readers have come to expect. But, it’s also not really a middle grade book, either.

I did finish it, and it was a good story with a decent ending. But, it’s not one of my favorites.

Audio book: Firekeeper’s Daughter

by Angeline Boulley
Read by Isabella Star LaBlanc
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some tasteful on-screen sex, and a rape scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Daunis Fontaine has not quite fit in growing up. She lives in Sault St Marie in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and being half white and half Ojibwe has made it so that she never quite fit in either community. She wants a fresh start at the University of Michigan, but it doesn’t happen once her uncle dies suddenly. And then Daunis is drawn into an FBI investigation over the spread of meth in the region. It gets more complicated when she falls for the new guy, Jamie, and things keep getting more and more involved with the investigation.

I highly highly recommend this one on audio. I don’t know how it would play out in print; I suspect that I would have tripped over the Anishinaabe words that Boulley peppers throughout the book. Speaking of which: I appreciated Boulley’s inclusion of Native customs and practices but in a way that felt like they were important to Daunis, but not crucial to the outcome of the story. I loved LaBlanc’s narration, and the way she brought the characters to life. (The only complaint I had about the audio book is that they pronounced pasty wrong. It’s PAH-sty not PAY-sty. Any self-respecting Michigander knows that.) No, it’s not the fast-paced thriller the publisher is marketing it as, but it is an immersive story about a young woman who is trying to figure out how she can fit in, grieve, honor her traditions, and find her own path.

In short: I found it remarkable.

This Place: 150 Years Retold

by Various Authors
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Content: There is violence and racism as well as some mild swearing. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This is one of the reasons why I love the Cybils. I had never heard of this book, or would have ever picked it up, had I not been a judge for the graphic novels panel. And I’m so glad I did!

This is a series of short stories starting in the mid-1800s and going through to present day. Each story is told by an Indigenous people about people in their past or present who have somehow influenced or otherwise impressed them. Obviously, I hadn’t heard of any of them, but I found the stories not only to be interesting but to be important as well. I did feel like I connected with some of the stories more than others and that some of the art was better than others, but overall it’s a fascinating and important book. And one I’m glad I read.

Surviving the City

by Tasha Spillett and Natasha Donovan
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Content: There is tough content about indigenous women who have disappeared. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Miikwan and Dez are best friends. They’ve done everything together from their hanging out after school to their traditional and important Berry Fast. And ever since Miikwan’s mother disappeared, she has needed Dez in her life. But, Dez’s kokum is not doing well, heath-wise, and the state has threatened to put Dez into a group home. Which she doesn’t want, and so she leaves. Which sends Miikwan into a spiral: she can’t lose another woman in her life.

On the one hand, this is an important book: it’s picturing the lives of Native peoples in the city, not on the reservations, showing them balancing the traditional with the contemporary. It highlights the injustices by the government — why should Dez go into a group home because her grandmother’s health is failing? Would that happen if she were white? Or less poor? — and the grave harms done to indigenous women — the book is populated with ghosts of the women murdered and who have disappeared. It’s definitely an important story to tell.

Which is kind of why I wish it were actually told better. Maybe it’s because I am white, but I didn’t feel like the characters were fully developed — Miikwan’s main character trait was that she missed her mother and Dez’s was that she didn’t want to go into a group home. I wanted to know more about their Berry Fast: what was it, why is it important to them? I just wanted more from these characters to balance out the importance of the story they were telling. I also wanted to know more about the ghosts. Could MIikwan see them? Sometimes I felt like she could. I get why they were around, but what was their connection to our characters? And Dez — I just wanted more from her, other than the fact that she was worried about her kokum. What are her interests? She got in trouble in the beginning, was she the one who was always picked on by the teacher? Does she see the school counselor often (I got that impression, but wasn’t sure). There were just so many holes.

That said, I am glad this exists in the world.

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse

by Joseph Marshall III
First sentence: “Jimmy McClean walked among the buffalo berry thickets along the Smoking Earth River.”
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Content: There is some bullying and talk of war. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Jimmy McClean is half white, half Lakota, which makes him a target at his school outside the Rosebud Sioux reservation, both from the white kids and from the other Lakota kids. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever fit in, with his blue eyes and brown hair. That is, until his Lakota grandfather takes Jimmy on a road trip through Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana following the footsteps of Crazy Horse — known in his younger years as Light Hair — and learning about the life of this great warrior and leader.

This is such a good story. First off, I enjoyed the grandparent-grandchild dynamic, and I appreciated the division between present day and the historical storytelling. It wasn’t a straight “this is what Crazy Horse did here” narrative, but rather weaving the stories of Crazy Horse’s life in such a way to help Jimmy with his present day problems. I also appreciated the Lakota perspective on Crazy Horse. It’s good to remember that history books just teach the White perspective, and it’s valuable to hear these stories from another side.

It’s short, and it’s a valuable story to have around, and not just for Native representation. It’s a good reminder that history has many sides.

#NotYourPrincess

edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale
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Content: It’s tough content, talking about abuse and rape. It’s in the Teen Issues (Non-Fiction) section of the bookstore.

This is not the sort of thing I usually pick up: a book of art and poetry and essays. But, my biggest take-away from the Multicultural Literature class I just finished was that 1) there isn’t a whole lot of Native literature out there and 2) I don’t read any of it. So, I decided that I need to try and fix that. At least to some extent. I remembered that this one had recently come out (I had ordered it in for the store), but didn’t know anything about it. So I checked it out.

It’s a compilation from Native women artists, all from different nations, who are expressing themselves. From connections to their past and future, and what their heritage means to to them; to the challenges of being a Native woman today. It covers all of North America, so there are voices from Canadian indigenous women as well as those here in the U. S. It’s sometimes harsh reading, especially for an outsider looking in, but it’s ultimately uplifting and empowering. I’m incredibly glad a collection like this exists, and I’m glad I was compelled into picking it up.

Hearts Unbroken

by Cynthia Leitich Smith
First sentence: “Half past nine a.m. in the residual haze of my junior prom, I ducked into a powder room off the kitchen at the swanky lake house where the after-party took place.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are multiple f-bombs and a tasteful sex scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Louise is a senior at a small(ish)-town Kansas high school, and has decided this year to be on the newspaper. She mostly wants to try out something new, but it’s also because her last boyfriend, Cam, turned out to be racist towards Native Peoples. And since Louise is a member of the Muscogee Nation, that really sat wrong. She’s decided that she’s going to make a stand against all the little micro-aggressions toward Native Peoples that she sees.

It doesn’t help that her family is being targeted by racists: her younger brother Hughie has been cast as the Tin Man in a color-blind casting of The Wizard of Oz (a black girl was cast as Dorothy) and the white people in town — especially the wife of the pastor of the big evangelical church — are Up In Arms. They think this is Ruining Their Values. And so, Louise, and her potential-love-interest Joey, tackle the story through the high school paper.

I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. On the one hand, I appreciated all the ways that Leitich Smith pointed out that we, as a culture, have adopted stereotypes of Native Peoples, and how that’s affecting them, whether directly or indirectly. But, I feel like there wasn’t much of a story there. Sure, there was a plot: Louise is dealing with her own issues, working on a relationship with Joey, and trying to balance friendships and family and school. But, I never really connected with it. I just felt like is was “here’s a situation, let me explain why this is racist”. Maybe that’s my problem: I felt like white people were the audience for this book, and while it’s an Own Voices title, I’m not sure how much a Native teen would relate to this book. I felt like Leitich Smith was Explaining Things to me, when I just really wanted a story about a Muscogee girl in Kansas who is dealing with high school and issues.

But maybe it’s just me.

Who Will Tell My Brother?

by Marlene Carvell
First sentence: ¨When I filled out the form for the test — the dreaded “you will be labeled for life test” the “colleges will want you–or not” test the “who are you? — what are you? — why are you?” test, I wrote my name.”
It´s out of print, unfortunately.
Content: There is some blatant racism, one use of the n-word, and one (off-screen) instance of violence against an animal.

Evan is a bi-racial (half Mowhawk) senior at his small-town (Upstate New York?) high school, and he’s fed up with their mascot: an exaggeration of the “generic” Native American, with feathered headdress and tomahawk, complete with war whoops and “dancing” at the pep rallies. He decides that this year he’s going to do something about it. Except his petitions fall on deaf ears: they don’t want to change “tradition”; they don’t feel it’s racist; and by the way, you have light brown hair and blue eyes, are you even Indian?

As Evan’s fight goes on over the years, this book gives readers an extended look into not just white privilege, but also White Arrogance. White people, at least the white people in this book, not just refuse to listen to a minority, they assume they Know Better just because they’re white. (In other words: white people are the worst!)

I was a bit skeptical about Carvell writing this story, since she’s white, but since it’s loosely biographical (written in verse, which is why I’m not entirely sure of some of the details) based on her son, I’m going to give her a pass. She didn’t come up with a huge white savior ending; the school didn’t change their policy, though there was some protests by other seniors at graduation. It felt real and honest, which I appreciated.

Indian Shoes

by Cynthia Leitich Smith
First sentence: “Ray and Grampa Halfmoon traipsed down the cracked sidewalk of a steel and stone city.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (So, this says a release date of 2021. The book is currently out of print — I bought a used copy — but I guess they’re bringing it back?)
Content: It’s a series of short episodic chapters, with illustrations. If we had this, it would be in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

This is a series of short stories — well, episodes really — featuring Ray, a member of the Seminole and Cherokee tribes, as he grows up in Chicago with his Grampa. His parents died in a crash (I think) when Ray was very young, and he and his Grampa can’t afford to go to back Oklahoma very often. There’s not a lot to the, Ray buys moccasins for his Grampa (well, he trades his shoes for them), they go to a wedding (in which there are mishaps), they celebrate Christmas alone, Ray gets a bad haircut (and then dyes his hair to match his little league team colors), and they finally go home to Oklahoma and go fishing.

Even with is simplistic nature (it’s definitely written for younger kids), it’s a good portrait of one Native life. It’s a good reminder that Native peoples aren’t all the same, that they aren’t just historical figures, that they don’t all live on the reservation, and that they have lives and hopes and dreams.

I definitely need to read more of Smith’s work, too.