November 15, 2014

Review of The Jingle Dress

Once in a while I get out of the house and see an actual Native movie. Such was the case Saturday when a friend and I attended the LA Skins Fest screening of The Jingle Dress.

The Jingle DressJohn Red Elk hears from his relatives down in Minneapolis that his Uncle Norton is dead and vows to go to the big city to find out what really happened to him. At its heart, "The Jingle Dress" is a contemporary story of a Native American family that moves from their rural home on the reservation in northern Minnesota to the faster paced urban environment of Minneapolis. We follow the Red Elk family as they experience city culture through their unvarnished perspective, as well as gain insight into their Indigenous culture and traditions.

--Written by William Eigen

John Red Elk pulls up stakes and takes his family off the reservation and down to the big city to find out how his long lost Uncle Norton died. Through the fresh eyes of his eight year old daughter Rose, we follow the family as they discover a new, urban culture and gain insight into their own ancient, indigenous society.

--Written by Anonymous

Packed House: Actress Stacey Thunder on 'The Jingle Dress' Sneak Preview ScreeningOn Saturday, April 5, The Jingle Dress made its debut in a sold-out sneak preview screening at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. The film stars Stacey Thunder, Kimberly Guerrero, Chaske Spencer and Steve Reevis. "The screening went great and there was definitely a packed house--chairs were added in the very back of the theater," says Thunder, who took a few moments to discuss the film with ICTMN. (The Jingle Dress will next screen in Minneapolis in about a month, she says, but there is no firm date or venue at this time--follow for updates.)

What's The Jingle Dress about?

It's a contemporary story of a Native American family who move from their rural home on the reservation in northern Minnesota to the faster paced urban environment of Minneapolis. I play Elsie, the mother of the Red Elk family. She is the backbone of the family and loves them dearly. She is very strong, yet sensitive and looks to her husband John (Chaske Spencer) and sister Janet (Kimberly Guerrero), for support. She worries about her family as they experience their new life in Minneapolis.
"The Jingle Dress" films in Northeast

Comment:  My friend and I agreed about The Jingle Dress. Greg Winter's cinematography was gorgeous--well beyond what you see in most low-budget movies. The acting led by Chaske Spencer and Stacey Thunder was fine. But the rest of the movie--the writing, directing, and editing--were poor. There was no tension and not much of a plot. Basically nothing happens.

You can see this in the trailer above, which has the movie's best movies. It tries to hint at a deeper mystery surrounding the uncle's death, but there's no there there. The movie doesn't go any deeper into his death or the family's dislocation than what's in the trailer.

Since I'm a story guy, I don't give The Jingle Dress much credit for looking nice or showing a modern Native family without stereotypes. I expect as much in any serious Native movie. I expect more and this film doesn't deliver. Rob's rating: 5.0 of 10.

Below:  "Happy family: Chaske Spencer, S'Nya Sanchez-Hohenstein, Mauricimo Sanchez-Hohenstein, and Stacey Thunder as the Red Elk family in The Jingle Dress."

November 14, 2014

Review of 500 Years of Resistance

The 500 Years of Resistance Comic BookA powerful and historically accurate graphic portrayal of Indigenous peoples' resistance to the European colonization of the Americas, beginning with the Spanish invasion under Christopher Columbus and ending with the Six Nations land reclamation in Ontario in 2006. Gord Hill spent two years unearthing images and researching historical information to create The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, which presents the story of Aboriginal resistance in a far-reaching format.

Other events depicted include the 1680 Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico; the Inca insurgency in Peru from the 1500s to the 1780s; Pontiac and the 1763 Rebellion and Royal Proclamation; Geronimo and the 1860s Seminole Wars; Crazy Horse and the 1877 War on the Plains; the rise of the American Indian Movement in the 1960s; 1973's Wounded Knee; the Mohawk Oka Crisis in Quebec in 1990; and the 1995 Aazhoodena/Stoney Point resistance.

With strong, plain language and evocative illustrations, The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book documents the fighting spirit and ongoing resistance of Indigenous peoples through five hundred years of genocide, massacres, torture, rape, displacement, and assimilation: a necessary antidote to the conventional history of the Americas. Includes an introduction by activist Ward Churchill, leader of the American Indian Movement in Colorado and a prolific writer on Indigenous resistance issues.

Gord Hill, a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation in British Columbia, has been active in Indigenous resistance, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist movements since 1990. He is also author of The 500 Years of Resistance, a pamphlet published by PM Press.

From Booklist
This slender black-and-white work is intended to inspire indigenous Americans by presenting historical evidence of their resistance to European invaders, colonizers, and “treaties.” From the fifteenth-century Taino reception of the Spanish in the Caribbean through the 1995 Ipperwash stand-down in Stoney Point, Ontario, Hill visits about a dozen events—almost all in North America—and describes in text and image how Native Peoples fought against white settlers, soldiers, and police in settlements, on open land, and even—shown here to a much lesser degree—through strikes and office raids. Hill doesn’t dig deep into any single event, and like the flat, heavily inked panels, his journalistic style tends toward minimalism in background as well as analysis. This book is a good starting point for exploring events of warrior resistance by peoples who are too often presented as weak and passive, and Ward Churchill’s introduction includes a lengthy bibliography to steer dedicated readers. In addition, teens will find this readily accessible, although the simplification of events is more inspirational than suitable for supplementing a history curriculum. --Francisca Goldsmith

Rob's review

My reaction is closer to the Booklist review than to the official blurb. In fact, I'd say Booklist understates the book's problems.

Let's start with Ward Churchill's introduction. It goes on for fourteen pages plus five pages of footnotes. Most of those pages are Churchill talking about his own adventures. Only in the last couple of pages does he mention Gord Hill's book.

Churchill claims he had to talk about his own resistance before he could talk about the book's. One could summarize his message in three words: Remember the past. Everything else in the intro is puffery designed to show how significant Churchill and his antics are.

The concept of 500 Years of Resistance is a good one. By focusing only on acts of resistance, it shows how Native took charge of their own fates. They didn't wait around for disease and warfare to conquer them; they fought back.

But the list of events covered in second paragraph (above) is misleading. Hill devotes only two pages to "The War on the Plains," which most people would say was the climax of the Indian Wars. He follows that with eight pages of "The War on the Coast"--British and other European attacks in the Pacific Northwest.

Most of the incidents are minor: a skirmish or raid here, a bit of gun or cannon fire there. Hill obviously wants to include his British Columbian history, but he doesn't make a case for spending so much space on it. The section skews the whole work; it makes you wonder about Hill's agenda.

Modern section skewed too

The same is true of the rest of the book, which covers the following subjects with the given number of pages:

Alcatraz and the Trail of Broken Treaties: 6
Wounded Knee '73: 2
Oka Crisis: 4
Zapatistas: 3
Standoff at Ts'Peten: 6
Aazhoodena: 4

I hadn't heard about Ts'Peten and don't know anything about Aazhoodena, so I question the space devoted to them. Again, Hill doesn't make a case for the significance of these events. It's clear he wanted to highlight lesser-known events in Canada, but again, it skews the book's coverage.

That's ten of 25 pages, or 40%, on recent events that few have heard of. Meanwhile, there's nothing about the tobacco battles in upstate New York, the Navajo battles against coal mining in Arizona, the Dann sisters' land battles in Nevada, or the gaming battles throughout the US. Each of these deserves one or two pages in a book about Native resistance.

Hill might've been better off focusing his book on the resistance in Canada, because that's where his heart seems to lie. Really, the book's title could be 500 Years of Resistance That's Important to Me or something like that. Few would say he included all the highlights of Native history in an evenhanded manner. Unfortunately, that makes the book less useful than it could be to the uninitiated.

November 13, 2014

Aztec mascot is violent and savage

San Diego State University's Aztec mascot hasn't been in the news lately. Apparently the school, like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, are feeling pressure to change.

I try not to bother with minor mascot battles, but this article included a point that was too much to pass up.

Aztec for life? Possibly not

Students propose dropping Aztec Warrior and name

By Barbara Medina
The Queer People of Color Collective of SDSU submitted an official resolution to the Associated Students (AS) to get rid of the Aztec Warrior and the Aztec name in all affiliated organizations, including Aztec Shops.

The group says that using people as a mascot perpetuates racism. It refers to the Aztec Warrior that often appears at sports events and the slogan “Fear the Spear,” arguing that they portray Aztecs and Native Americans in general as savages and violent.
How is this matter even open to debate?

Think about it. You have Lions and Tigers and Bears; Vikings and Pirates and Raiders. But unlike every other team, the Redskins, Chiefs, Braves, and Aztecs are supposed to represent pride and honor?

No, they're about violence and savagery. Exactly like a predatory beast or ethnic group or occupation. They're about destroying one's enemies--figuratively killing and scalping them.

That's why no one has had or will ever have a modern-day Native mascot in a suit and tie. Modern-day Natives represent the same pride and honor, but they don't represent violence or savagery. And that's what teams are looking for: a spearchucker or tomahawk wielder to strike fear into the hearts of opponents.

You can see this in the old fight song and mascot images. You can see it in the fans dressed up as redfaced savages. There isn't even a legitimate counterargument here--not one consistent with the facts. Indian mascots = violence and savagery.

In fact, I'd love to hear a sports fan say, "We share the values of the Wolverines, Hornets, or Diamondbacks." Most animals don't have values, obviously. They're just dumb beasts.

Below:  A savage, bloodthirsty Aztec warrior mascot.

November 12, 2014

Racism in Stargate SG-1

Everyone is the Same (Stargate)Speaking of the SGC, there is a definite lack of persons of color who are actually characters on the show. I’ve seen a lot of black guys walking around the base in the halls, so it’s not that the SGC itself is racist, and instead that the show doesn’t hire persons of color for major roles. Teal’c is kind of the token black character and he’s an alien turncoat not really in the U.S. Air Force. Most persons of color on this show are Jaffa or Goa’uld hosts like that of Apophis and Ba’al, members of exotic foreign cultures, while the good guys at home are white.

The homogenous casting also has some unfortunate implications with regard to Stargate’s pre-Darwinian take on evolution, where every being changes for the better until Ascension. According to this, lower life forms turn into modern humans, modern humans turn into superpowered psychics, and superpowered psychics turn into godlike Ascended beings. This is a set pattern that happened before ages ago with the Ancients and can be seen happening at the time of the show. So, it’s unfortunate that all of these superior forms into which beings evolve happen to be white. Oops.
Traveling Through the Iris: Re-producing Whiteness in Stargate SG-1Alien encounters and SG-1's response to these encounters are fundamental to the narrative of Stargate SG-1. I argue that a significant feature of Stargate SG-1 is the conflict operating between whiteness and nonwhiteness. Whiteness is represented as linked to the superior white human and white alien, while the nonwhite human and nonwhite alien are linked with inferiority. As my thesis demonstrates, Stargate SG-1 narratives also associate whiteness and humanity, with liberty, democracy and superiority. These associations are set in opposition to those of darkness and alienness, which are linked with tyranny, inferiority and savagery. Such simplistic severances are used to reinforce classic stereotypes of the other.

Unlike Star Trek with its aim to present a multi-cultural image through having a diverse cast, the early seasons of Stargate SG-1 do not represent a multi-cultural format. In fact, the only substantial role given to a nonwhite actor who is part of Stargate Command in the early episodes is that of the alien, Teal'c. Other nonwhite actors appear occasionally but function mostly as background to the central narrative. When nonwhiteness is made visible it is done so in terms of alien representation. Hostile aliens in the series are predominantly nonwhite, and often black.
Comment:  I watched the first episode of Stargate SG-1 a few years ago. The problem quickly became evident to me. The Terran heroes were white; the alien Goa’uld were brown. I checked online and found these postings discussing the obvious.

November 11, 2014

Inca artifact in Castle

Last night's episode of Castle, Times of Our Lives (airdate: 11/10/14), featured the long-awaited "Caskett" wedding. It came about because of the power of a mystical Native artifact.

Here's the story with the Native aspects noted:

Castle S7 Ep6–Times of Our LivesThe murder this week is of a courier, found with his hand cut off so that the bad guys could steal the case he was handcuffed to. But when Rick & Kate find the missing case at an abandoned coal factory, it turns out to hold a mysterious Incan artifact that Rick picks up for some reason. Has he never seen Indiana Jones??? The bad guys burst in, and Castle hits his head while still holding onto the artifact–and thus ends up in an alternate universe.Castle Recap–Becket and Castle Say I Do: Season 7 Episode 6 “The Time of Our Lives”Alexis says maybe he’s in alternate universe and they tell him to go lie down. ... He searches for parallel universes and watches videos that describe circumstances similar to his and there’s the artifact he touched! The headline asks if it could be the gateway to another world. In the morning, he shows a print out to his mom and daughter. It’s an article about the Incan artifact that connects to the Incan gateway of the Gods.'Castle' Recap: Castle and Beckett Get MarriedCastle impresses Beckett with his knowledge of the Incan artifact, so she allows him to accompany Ryan and Esposito in their search for armed criminals. Another constant is Castle's inability to follow simple instructions, which leads to him finding the artifact but being held at knifepoint. In the ensuing struggle the artifact is broken.

Beckett decides to let Castle go with a semi-stern talking-to and the team focuses on questioning he woman who held him at knifepoint. Her name is Maria Sanchez, and she and her cousin were trying to return the artifact to the Incan people. She says they had nothing to do with the murder.
Castle: The Time of Our Lives (Recap and Review)On his way to the station Rick is kidnapped by the men who stole the artifact and it turns out that the villain has worked out that Castle is in the wrong world because of the artifact and he wants Rick to tell him how it works. Beckett shows up and after a brief shootout, Rick gets the artifact back and leaps in front of Kate to keep her from getting shot. As he dies, Rick comes back to “my you.”


The mystical Native artifact is a well-worn plot device. It's stereotypical, of course, since real artifacts don't have supernatural powers.

Why don't European artifacts have as much magic as Native ones? Because Native cultures are more fantastical and unreal--at least to us.

At least Castle tried to link the artifact to the Inca religion--claiming it was a portal between universes and not just an evil talisman created by a shaman's curse. And the disk actually resembles the Inca's golden sun disk. As Wikipedia explains:

IntiInti is the ancient Incan sun god. He is revered as the national patron of the Inca state.

Inti is represented as a golden disk with rays and a human face. Many such disks were supposedly held in Cuzco as well as in shrines throughout the empire, especially at Coricancha, where the most significant image of Inti was discovered by anthropologists. This representation, adorned with ear spools, a pectoral, and a royal headband, was known as "punchao," meaning 'day.'
So an actual Inca artifact, more or less, was used in this story. That's almost enough to make the gimmick acceptable.

One article claimed Maria Sanchez was "a notorious stolen-artifact smuggler." Turns out she's stealing artifacts to repatriate them, which is a better cause than stealing them for profit. So the Latina or indigenous criminal is actually a good guy of sorts. While this isn't uncommon, it's always good to see.

Castle has addressed artifact smuggling--an important topic in indigenous communities--before. Now it's hinting at the subject again. Nice job, Castle.

Anyway, this wedding episode was good if not great. Even though I guessed the bad guy the moment I saw him, as usual.

November 10, 2014

Missing aliens in Star Trek

Back in February, a Facebook friend posted the following link with a note for me. This led to a Star Trek discussion, of all things:

On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael DunnInteresting. What do you think? Has America just "grown up" racist?Yes, you could say we've grown up racist. I think that the genocide of Indians and the enslavement of blacks are fundamental to our core mythology. Which goes along the lines of, "God gave the American wilderness to the white man to conquer, tame, and develop. Anything that happened along the way was just an unfortunate byproduct."So you'd agree with the author then that "devaluation" of black lives goes back to that?Yes. Basically America wasn't an experiment in creating a melting pot of multiculturalism. It was an experiment in setting up a continent ruled by a cult of white supremacy.

Only since the beginning of the 20th century have the two philosophies--white supremacy vs. melting pot--come into real conflict. We're somewhere in the middle of a transition that might take a few centuries. By the time the Star Trek era arrives, we may actually achieve the Star Trek ideal.

The ideal that didn't quite make it onto the screen, that is. White males still held a preponderance of the jobs even thought that shouldn't have happened in an egalitarian society.Star Trek was still an ideal seen through the lens of 1960s television.Right.

Just once, a Star Trek show should give us a ship with the actual demographics of Earth. Which would be half various kinds of Asians, or something like that.

Or better yet, a ship with the actual demographics of the Federation. Which might be a quarter each of humans, Vulcans, Andorians, and Tellarites.

I wonder if anyone would notice either of these ships and the statement it was making. I.e., how contrived the white, European, human bias of Star Trek is.

P.S. Where are the Andorians and and especially the Tellarites? You could do several science fiction-based ST movies with wonderful new concepts and never touch the Klingons or Romulans.

Lack of aliens okay?The alien thing has never really bothered me in the demographics on Star Trek. I always sort of saw The Federation sort of like the U.N.--you have SOME individuals from different planets serving in cross-cultural roles, but generally ships would be crewed by people from their planet of origin. And you could excuse them for not perfectly mirroring human demographics if maybe serving in Starfleet isn't a top priority in all cultures.

However, you'd expect it to be better than it's been. Of course the original was hampered by broadcasting standards, but Next Generation was surprisingly not much better. Then you have Voyager at the other end of the extreme, looking like a J.Crew ad, with it's accidentally blended crew that just HAPPENED to include one person from each gender and ethnic group.
All of Starfleet's ships just happen to have Earth as their planet of origin. So they're all predominantly white (but not Asian, oddly). Convenient!

Sure, you could explain away the lack of aliens. Even the other three founding races of the Federation. For instance, the Vulcans are too busy with science, the Andorians with sex, and the Tellarites with commerce.

They actually gave an explanation like this for the lack of Vulcans. They're too dedicated to scientific pursuits, don't believe in Starfleet's miltary aspects, and find it too illogical to work with humans. Okay, we buy that.

But still, if you're going to explain the shortcoming, then explain it. In the stories themselves. Leaving it unexplained and implied is weak.

Someone, perhaps a Klingon, actually accused Starfleet of being the imperialist arm of the human race. He has a point. The Federation's military might is primarily controlled by humans.

If the other races are involved in other pursuits, then show it. For instance, if the Enterprise becomes involved in a scientific dispute, show a team of Vulcans in charge. If it becomes involved in a trade dispute, show a team of Tellarites in charge.

In short, whatever the other races are doing, show them doing it. Otherwise, the racial charges against Star Trek are valid. If Avatar can give us an entire planet of blue-skinned Na'vi, I think Star Trek can give us alien races that aren't humans with facial ridges.

For more on Star Trek, see Superior Powers Don't Change Society and Colonialism Inspired Science Fiction.

November 09, 2014

Chris Korpi dies

Chris Korpi, an Indian gaming executive who had worked for several companies, died Saturday of a heart attack. He was one of the leading lights of Indian gaming and an all-around great guy, kind and generous to everyone he met.

As you may recall, I work at and attend the Global Gaming Expo and NIGA conventions every year. Here's an interview I conducted with him:

Gaming Executive Leads Trips to Indian CountryNote: Chris Korpi, head of Native American relations at VizExplorer, died November 8, 2014. We mourn the loss of one of Indian gaming's greatest advocates and one of Indian country's greatest friends.


When Chris Korpi headed off to college in Rapid City, South Dakota, he knew next to nothing about Native Americans. He couldn’t imagine it was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to America’s first people.

After graduating from the School of Mines with a degree in geological engineering, he worked as a lobbyist and consultant for local politicians. Eventually they took jobs at Sodak Gaming, a predecessor of International Gaming Technology (IGT). When they asked him to join them, he agreed.

During stints at Sodak, IGT, Aruze, and Cadillac Jack, Korpi learned the business as a sales executive dedicated to Indian country. He recently joined BIS2, a San Diego-based maker of business intelligence software, as Assistant VP—Native American Relations and Business Development.

In any job, he’s one of the strongest advocates of Indian gaming. He “gets it”—that it’s about giving tribes the means to determine their own future.

As part of his work, Korpi occasionally leads educational trips to his old stomping grounds in South Dakota. We talked about his 2012 pilgrimage, which was sponsored by Cadillac Jack, and his philosophy toward Indian gaming.
I went on the 2012 trip with him and got to see that part of Indian country for the first time. You can read my reports and see my photographs here:

South Dakota trip


Here are some of my favorite pix of Chris:

Chris at Table Rock Beach. May 22, 2014.

Chris explains the geology of the Etta Mine near Mt. Rushmore. June 24, 2012.

At the Mountain View Cemetery near Mt. Rushmore. Chris points out the rose quartz--South Dakota's state stone--on a grave. June 24, 2012.

Chris explains things to our group on the viewing platform at Terry Peak. June 27, 2012.

Chris and friends on the Crazy Horse Memorial. June 28, 2012.

Chris and Adam Beach at NIGA. May, 2014.

Victor Rocha with Chris--one of the handful of people who made what it is today. April 3, 2012.

P.S. I imagine how Chris would respond to all the praise he's getting. "Thanks, but it's not necessary. I'm not anybody important. If you want to show your appreciation, donate your time or money to a worthy cause. There are people struggling all over the world--in Africa and right here in Indian country--who need your help."

That's the kind of guy he was. RIP, Chris.

November 08, 2014

Review of Fossil Legends of the First Americans

Fossil Legends of the First AmericansThe burnt-red badlands of Montana's Hell Creek are a vast graveyard of the Cretaceous dinosaurs that lived 68 million years ago. Those hills were, much later, also home to the Sioux, the Crows, and the Blackfeet, the first people to encounter the dinosaur fossils exposed by the elements. What did Native Americans make of these stone skeletons, and how did they explain the teeth and claws of gargantuan animals no one had seen alive? Did they speculate about their deaths? Did they collect fossils?

Beginning in the East, with its Ice Age monsters, and ending in the West, where dinosaurs lived and died, this richly illustrated and elegantly written book examines the discoveries of enormous bones and uses of fossils for medicine, hunting magic, and spells. Well before Columbus, Native Americans observed the mysterious petrified remains of extinct creatures and sought to understand their transformation to stone. In perceptive creation stories, they visualized the remains of extinct mammoths, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and marine creatures as Monster Bears, Giant Lizards, Thunder Birds, and Water Monsters. Their insights, some so sophisticated that they anticipate modern scientific theories, were passed down in oral histories over many centuries.

Drawing on historical sources, archaeology, traditional accounts, and extensive personal interviews, Adrienne Mayor takes us from Aztec and Inca fossil tales to the traditions of the Iroquois, Navajos, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Pawnees. Fossil Legends of the First Americans represents a major step forward in our understanding of how humans made sense of fossils before evolutionary theory developed.

From Publishers Weekly
Mayor, a folklorist and historian of science, continues the project of understanding what premodern peoples made of fossils that she started in The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Surveying accounts of Native American tradition from the earliest Spanish conquistador and missionary records of Aztec and Inca lore up through present-day Indian oral histories, she correlates Native American myths with the fossils they are known or presumed to have observed. The results are unsurprising: giant fossil mastodon and dinosaur bones engendered myths about giants—giant elk, bear, birds, centipedes, subhumanoids and mysterious "water monsters"—who populated the earth until, in a nearly universal motif, they were killed off with lightning strikes by sky spirits. Indian notions of "deep time," changing landforms and climates, and the descent of contemporary species from fossilized ancestors anticipate the insights of present-day geology and evolutionary theory, she contends, while Inca legends of extinction by "fire from heaven" prefigure modern theories of extinction by asteroid impact. Her research makes for a competent if dry study in comparative folklore, but her claim that these myths "evince the stirrings of scientific inquiry in pre-Darwinian cultures" downplays the elements of animism and supernaturalism that are so radically at odds with the materialist and mechanistic thrust of modern science. Photos.

From Booklist
Centuries before modern paleontologists began scouring the western badlands for dinosaur skeletons, a dozen Native American tribes had already discovered hundreds of ancient fossils. Through remarkably wide-ranging research, Mayor has recovered the fascinating story of how various tribes encountered and interpreted dinosaur bones and other remains of early life. As she did in her landmark study of Greek and Roman responses to fossils (The First Fossil Hunters, 2001), Mayor illuminates the surprisingly relevant views of early peoples confronting evidence of prehistoric life. But in this investigation, Mayor must also rescue these Native American musings from generations of neglect and derision. By interviewing numerous tribal folklorists and probing neglected chronicles of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century explorers, Mayor has reconstructed the way Native Americans converted fossils into the substrate for powerful myths. Though tribal myths actually anticipate key Darwinian concepts of species change, Native American traditions have too often been dismissed as mere superstition by orthodox scientists. This pioneering work replaces cultural estrangement with belated understanding. --Bryce Christensen
Rob's review

Fossil Legends of the First Americans offers many interesting tidbits. For instance, that buried skeletons inspired the idea of animals and people emerging from underground. Or that legends of previous worlds dying in fire or ice or floods came from the geological record.

The Publishers Weekly review above is a little harsh. Natives believe that giant prehistoric animals roamed the earth--something they could've surmised from seeing bones. Euro-American Christians believed that animals never went extinct--that the animals seen today had always existed. Anything God created was perfect and therefore endured forever without change.

Well, Natives were much closer to the truth. And that may be because they actually observed the bones while Westerners were getting their "science" from the Bible. In short, Natives understood the natural world better--a point we shouldn't overlook.

As for the writing style, "a competent if dry study" describes it pretty well. The book probably won't appeal to you unless you're already interested in the subject. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

November 07, 2014

Review of The Hot Kid

The Hot KidCarlos Webster was fifteen in the fall of 1921 the first time he came face-to-face with a nationally known criminal. A few weeks later, he killed his first man—a cattle thief who was rustling his dad's stock. Now Carlos, called Carl, is the hot kid of the U.S. Marshals Service, one of the elite manhunters currently chasing the likes of Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd across America's Depression-ravaged heartland. Carl wants to be the country's most famous lawman. Jack Belmont, the bent son of an oil millionaire, wants to be public enemy number one. Tony Antonelli of True Detective magazine wants to write about this world of cops and robbers, molls and speakeasies from perilously close up. Then there are the hot dames—Louly and Elodie—hooking their schemes and dreams onto dangerous men. And before the gunsmoke clears, everybody just might end up getting exactly what he or she wished for.

Leonard at the top of his form
By Jerry Saperstein on June 6, 2005

There are writers. There are novelists. There are storytellers. And there is Elmore Leonard who seeming transcends classification.

Leonard is at his lyrical, mythmaking best here as he tells the story of a little Oklahoma boy who is robbed of his ice cream cone by a two-bit bank robber, an event that shapes his future.

Carl Webster grows to be a man and becomes a Deputy United States Marshall during the heyday of bank robbers. Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonny and Clyde capture the nation's attention, while J. Edgar Hoover, Melvin Purvis and--of course--Carl Webster seek their own headlines.

In a milieu of dirt-poor farmers become millionaires through the Oklahoma oil boom, whores with good hearts, a rich man's son turned bad and the muse of Tony Antonelli, crime reporter, all the stories mix and blend thanks to Leonard's gifted pen.

Each of the characters is rich and full-blooded. The scent of Oklahoma's backroads and Kansas City's opulent brothels and their denizens is strong as the trails of bandits, lawmen, rich men, demented mothers, prostitutes and demented sons cross and re-cross.

Elmore Leonard has crafted many a fine tale: but "The Hot Kid" is undoubtedly one of his best and a thoroughly satisfying read.
Native aspects

It's been a while since I read The Hot Kid, but I believe Carl is a quarter Native--probably Cherokee. His father's common-law wife is Native also.

Carl doesn't talk about himself, so his Native heritage is mostly implied. But Oklahoma was still Indian country in the 1920s, only a few years past its 1907 statehood. Carl's path may be similar to Will Rogers's, another "mixed breed" who grew up in the area.

Even if it rarely mentions Indians, The Hot Kid has a strong sense of time and place. One can see the class divide between rich and poor in the former Indian territory. If you want an entertaining inkling of what life was like then, try this book.

My only complaint about The Hot Kid was the slightly unsatisfying ending. Otherwise, I give it an 8.5 of 10.

November 06, 2014

Review of 7 Generations: Stone

Stone (7 Generations)Stone introduces Edwin, a young man who must discover his family’s past if he is to have any future. Edwin learns of his ancestor Stone, a young Plains Cree man, who came of age in the early 19th century. Following a vision quest, Stone aspires to be like his older brother, Bear, a member of the Warrior Society. But when Bear is tragically killed during a Blackfoot raid, Stone, the best shot and rider in his encampment, must overcome his grief and avenge his brother’s death. Only then can he begin a new life with his bride, Nahoway. It is Stone’s story that drives Edwin to embark on his own quest. Stone is the first book in the graphic novel series, 7 Generations. Forthcoming books in this series are Book 2: Scars, the story of the orphan White Cloud, set against the smallpox epidemic of 1870-1871. Book 3: Ends/Begins, the story of Edwin’s father, and the residential school saga. Book 4: The Pact, a story of redemption, as father and his son reconcile their past and begin a new journey.

“The graphic novel Stone offers a powerful message through image and word, and will engage readers in an historical and insightful story that illuminates the conflict that challenged Canada's very core, and continues to concern us as a Nation today.” David Booth, Author/Educator, OISE/Univ. of Toronto

“…a masterpiece of traditional knowledge; a powerful gift to share!” Betty Ross, elder, Cross Lake First Nation

“The gifted talents of author David A. Robertson and illustrator Scott Henderson make the reading of Stone comparable to watching a fascinating ‘mini-movie.’… It captures us emotionally and immediately. This is our story. Healing lies in knowing our past, not just of our lives, but also the distant past of our ancestors. The interweaving movements from present to past and past to present are like waves of cleansing waters washing in to the present, and back out to that distant past. It’s mesmerizing.” Beatrice Mosionier, author, April Raintree

“David Robertson is making an important contribution through his writing. He delves into delicate subject matter, making painful stories and accounts accessible.” Tina Keeper
Rob's review

Alas, I didn't like 7 Generations: Stone nearly as much as the commenters above, who are quoted on the back of the book.

It's good that the summary notes that Stone is Plains Cree. Because the story barely mentions it. You have to read carefully or you'll miss the designation. Stone comes across as a generic Plains Indian--the kind we've seen many, many times before.

The story opens with Edwin trying to commit suicide. In the hospital, his mother tells him stories about his past, hoping to inspire him to live.

*spoiler alert*

We begin the tale of Edwin's ancestors with two brothers, Stone and Bear, somewhere in pre-contact America. They're the usual half-naked warriors with buckskins, horses, and tipis seen in the vast majority of Native stories.

Stone goes on a vision quest. He trips on a stone, but it's shaped like an eagle, so his totem animal becomes an eagle. Again, that's the case in the vast majority of Native stories. The hero is linked to an eagle, or sometimes a wolf. It's the standard trope for showing how brave and noble the protagonist is.

Stone marries a beautiful Indian maiden.

Stone competes with his brother Bear to prove he's a man.

Bear is killed in a battle with the Blackfoot.

Stone wants revenge but is told it's not the right time.

Stone learns to hunt buffalo.

Stone undergoes a Thirst Dance, which means fasting, followed by "The Making of the Brave," which means a Sun Dance.

Stone is now a brave who can and does avenge his brother.

And...that's it. There are no hidden depths or nuances here. That's basically the whole story.

Naturally an eagle appears during the climatic ceremony and moment of vengeance. Because Stone is driven by the power of the eagle. We know this because he says so: "Creator give me the power of the eagle."

About the only thing that isn't standard here is the sequence of events. Usually the marriage and the brother's death would happen later in the story. And there wouldn't be a big gap between the brother's death and Stone's revenge.

There are only a couple of details that aren't completely generic in Stone: The maiden's name, Nahoway. The Blackfoot enemy. A hoop game. The Thirst Dance. Other than these, Stone could describe any Plains tribe across thousands of miles and centuries of time. It's that non-specific.

Scott Henderson's black-and-white art is solid and sometimes impressive. David Robertson's writing is less so. For instance, the mother's message to her son Edwin goes like this:I told you this story for a reason, my son.

We all have someone to fight for.

And this gives us hope.

Drives us.

Even when sometimes it's hard to keep going.

But in taking this journey...

...maybe you will know that someone is fighting for you, too.
Sorry, but I'd say that dialogue is more appropriate for a greeting card that a comic book. I doubt it would inspire or even interest a young man contemplating suicide. It's what a sentimental adult thinks a youngster should hear, not what a youngster actually wants to hear.

For fans of Native-oriented comics books, 7 Generations: Stone may be worth checking out. Perhaps the subsequent volumes will be less generic and more involving. But if you're someone who isn't interested in Native subjects, I doubt Stone will interest you. It doesn't show us anything we haven't seen before.