‘Names on the Land’: The Book I Should Have Finished Months Ago…

If you’ve been counting, dear readers, you will have noticed that it’s been FOUR MONTHS since I posted my last Imperial Geography post. And for someone who is still quite excited about the rest of the reading list for that project, that’s a long time!

names on the land stewartThe culprit: my current book, Names on the Land by George R. Stewart.

You know how sometimes a book sounds really interesting, and then it turns out that the interesting-sounding part is only like 5% of the actual book? This is one of those books for me.

I was really excited to learn more about the social dynamics behind name-choosing — but it turns out much of this book is very detailed, very place-specific historical (or legendary) anecdotes about why such-and-so town and this-and-that river were given the names we use today. While bits of this were slightly interesting — learning why there are so many “brooks” and “vales”, for example — I just couldn’t make myself slog through another 300 pages. (Yes, this book is FOUR HUNDRED PAGES LONG.)

So I gave up.

I used to be a purist about finishing books I started, but when one’s reading list is as long as mine is, you learn not to waste time on books you don’t enjoy.

To be fair, though, there were a couple interesting things I learned from this book. So I’ll share those, and then we’ll be on our way!

Interesting Things I Learned from Names on the Land

1. Americanism vs. Americana

Stewart defines this binary as the conflict between “two primal forces in the American mind” (p.x): Americanism, which represents the large-scale, manifest destiny-like grandiosity of American character; and Americana, which is small-scale, local, and handmade. I think this contrast helps me to have a little more understanding for the “flyover zone” of the country — many of the people I know who live in rural areas seem to have a distant (but still fervent) relationship with Americanism, but are intimately intertwined with their immediate world of Americana.

2. Names, religion, and empire

Stewart notes at the start of the book that “naming was a part of holding empire” (p.12), which makes sense. But what surprised me a little — and sort of creeped me out, as a Christian — were the religious overtones: “The Spaniards, with their love of pomp and solemnity, sometimes took possession of a new country with high formality…. They set up a cross, and held mass; the soldiers paraded and fired guns. …sometimes water was taken from the ocean or a river, and poured upon the dry land as a kind of baptism” (p.13). This really fleshes out the ideology of the European conquerors that they were agents of a militant Christian campaign to claim and baptize “pagan” lands and peoples for the Christian empire.

3. Fake, romanticized Indian names

At the start of the book, I was annoyed that Stewart didn’t spend much time talking about how Native peoples named the land. So when I skipped ahead to the part about Minnesota (I had to at least skim it before I gave up…) I was glad that he at least addressed the wacky European appropriation and romanticization of these names. (Though I wish he did a better job of contextualizing some of the negative things he says about Indians. You’ll see what I mean.) Here are excerpts from the story of European attitudes towards Indian names, according to Names on the Land:

The earliest English explorers, like the Spanish, had recorded Indian names with respect; they were still hoping to discover another Mexico or Peru. The settlers soon came to look upon an Indian as a treacherous savage, dirty, ignorant, poor, and heathen. Indian names fell into the same disrepute. After the Revolution the Indian menace was wholly removed from the sea-coast areas, and at the same time the new doctrine of the noble savage was growing popular. …

The admiration of Indian names as such began with the new love of the strange, mysterious, and primitive. … The forties [1840s] indeed really saw the revival under way. New Englanders in the middle seventeenth century had been seeking an illusion of peaceful civilization by replacing Agawam with Ipswich; two hundred years later, their desires were reversed, and a new town was established as Agawam.

…Most of the contemporary literary figures either by practice or direct advocacy favored Indian names…. Whitman beat the drum [wow, thanks for that] loudly in his American Primer: “I was asking for something savage and luxuriant, and behold here are the aboriginal names…. What is the fitness — What the strange charm of aboriginal names? … They all fit. Mississippi! — the word winds with chutes — it rolls a stream three thousand miles long.” …

Although the revival of Indian names rested basically upon a genuine enthusiasm, it picked up much shoddiness and dishonesty. As the religious mind has often been too ready to admit a pious tale without questioning its actual truth, so the romantic mind accepted a pleasing story and shaped facts to its own wishes. With an old-established name, therefor, the romantics merely declared it to be beautiful anyway…. With other words they selected the least ugly forms, and shifted consonants as they preferred. Nibthaska became Nebraska. …

The romantics also desired names with a suggestion of poetry. The simple primitive descriptives supplied almost nothing of this, but such people generally know next to nothing of Indian languages, and so suffered little restraint. Mississippi, “big river,” was a simple Indian name, but a Frenchman’s false translation “vieux Pere des Rivieres,” led to millions of American schoolchildren being taught the falsehood that Mississippi meant “Father of Waters.” It was a falsehood not only about a single name, but about Indians in general — for such a figure of speech would hardly have been used for a river.

The closest American equivalent of Minnesota would probably be “muddy river.”  That would never do! But –sota, the scholars admitted, might mean “cloudy.” Given an inch, the romantics took a mile. “Cloudy” suggested “sky,” and “sky” suggested “blue.” In the end  Minnesota was said to mean “sky-blue water”!

The fanciful interpretation of [a] Florida name supplied perhaps the height of the romantic. Itchepuckesassa, “where there are tobacco blossoms,” was probably only the Seminole’s equivalent of “tobacco field,” but it was rendered: “where the moon puts the colors of the rainbow into the earth and the sun draws them out in the flowers.” …

When such translations were circulated, it is no wonder that people believed Indian names to be sometimes remarkably descriptive, sometimes remarkably fanciful, poetic, and “full of meaning.”

The great majority of our present Indian names of towns are thus not really indigenous. Far even from being old, they are likely to be recent. Ipswich is two hundred years older than nearby Agawam. Troy or Lafayette is likely to be an older name in most states than Powhatan or Hiawatha. The romantics of the mid-century and after applied such names, not the explorers and frontiersmen. (p.275-279, excerpts; emphasis added)

Fascinating. From the Romanticists’ obsession with the “savage and luxuriant” exoticism they projected onto Indians, we get Longfellow’s made-up “Song of Hiawatha” and lots of random, relocated, and often outright false “Indian names” across our country. Not to mention some of the most RIDICULOUS falsehoods about what the words actually mean! As a Minnesotan, I’m glad to learn why I’ve always been confused about the name of our state. And that Florida one — my goodness! Go home, Romanticists — you’re drunk!

On a more serious note, interesting to see that the stereotype about Indian names being overly descriptive and poetic actually comes from white people “improving” translations of ordinary, commonplace Indian words. Just chew on that for a little bit.


Well, I can’t say I’m not glad to move on to the next book. BUT I also must say, I enjoyed learning that tidbit about how Indian names were romanticized and appropriated in the 1800s.

Linguists, if you enjoy an anecdote (or 400) and don’t mind a little dry prose, give this book a try! Perhaps you’ll be more successful than I at finishing it. You can tell me how it ends. 😉

Tune in next time as I FINALLY get to read about the PRAIRIE in Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage.

‘Changes in the Land’: The Making of a Literal New England

changes in the land - crononThis week I’m sharing my thoughts on Changes in the Land by William Cronon. It was actually referenced briefly in the last book I read (1491) so I was a little worried that reading it would be redundant. But it totally wasn’t! What I love about Changes in the Land is how specific it is — it goes into great detail based on thorough research including a plethora of first-hand accounts, which provided a nice contrast to 1491, which speaks in more big sweeps and generalities.

Here are my four biggest takeaways from Changes in the Land.

1. Indians and English didn’t get each other. A lot.

One of the big takeaways for me from this book was the extent to which English colonists and Indians didn’t get each other culturally, as illustrated here:

Indian men, seeing Englishmen working in the fields, could not understand why English women were not doing such work. At the same time, they failed to see the contributions colonial women were actually making: gardening, cooking, spinning and weaving textiles, sewing clothing, tending milch cows, making butter and cheese, caring for children, and so on. The English, for their part, had trouble seeing hunting and fishing — which most regarded as leisure activities — as involving real labor, and so tended to brand Indian men as lazy. (p.52)

When you have no idea why another culture does something differently than how you do it, it’s pretty hard to understand each other and pretty easy to make up inaccurate stereotypes based on your incorrect interpretation of the differences. And when one side has most of the power (as the English did once they outnumbered and started to dominate local Indian tribes), that can lead to some pretty bad and oppressive policies:

[T]he English used this Indian reliance on hunting not only to condemn Indian men as lazy savages but to deny that Indians had a rightful claim to the land they hunted. European perceptions of what constituted a proper use of the environment thus reinforced what became a European ideology of conquest. (p.53)

Because the English believed that hunting wasn’t a legitimate use of land, they used that cultural difference to justify their land theft and make it “legal”, because they were simply taking custody of land that was “empty” and not “in use”. This is where we start to really take a look under the hood of some of the “legal” gymnastics underpinning the process of European colonization of Native land. Speaking of which…

2. English property law was obsessed with productivity and “improvement”.

One idea that cropped up early in Cronon’s book was that of “improving” the land as the ultimate goal and value in land ownership and use. This belief was held by many Pilgrim/Puritan/English leaders, and basically stated that those that cultivated, subdued, or “improved” the land had a “superior right” (p. 56) to possess the land, as opposed to the Indians’ mere “natural” right of occupancy without being as “productive”. The English practiced this same policy among their own as they divided the land they took into individual parcels:

Land was allocated to inhabitants [of early New England villages] using the same biblical [sic] philosophy that had justified taking it from the Indians in the first place: individuals should only possess as much land as they were able to subdue and make productive. … A person with many servants and cattle could ‘improve’ more land than one who had few, and so was granted more land. (p. 73)

I read this idea the first time and kinda went “huh,” but then it began to crop up EVERYWHERE in the history of English settlement:

  • How do you “improve” a piece of land? Farm the heck out of it!
  • How do you “improve” a forest? Cut down all the trees for timber!
  • How do you “improve” a forest if you can’t afford to cut down and transport all the trees? Burn the trees to ash, which you can sell to soapmakers to make soap!

This leads to a new part of the problem, which is that the cheapest way to “improve” land was to clear new land… which means the doctrine of “improvement” supported continued territorial expansion on the part of the settlers. Cronon sums it up this way: “Ultimately, English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land — not to mention the land itself — as commodities, and so led them to orient a significant margin of their production toward commercial sale in the marketplace. The rural economy of New England thus acquired a new tendency toward expansion” (p.161). And this right here is what leads to later issues with the U.S. Government not being able to control its white settler creep across Indian borders (as we saw over and over in Little House / Wounded Knee) — because the ideology of moving further west to make money by “improving” on Indians’ “empty” land was established right from the get-go.

3. English settlers turned the land they took into New England… LITERALLY.

Rather than arriving and learning from the Indians or even adapting to the existing ecosystems, English colonists basically came and started imposing their ways and their values, and even their environment! In Changes in the Land, Cronon makes it clear that the way the English colonists changed the land was that they basically destroyed or made impossible the careful balance of systems previously set up by Indians (see the 1491 post for more on those) and began creating LITERALLY “New England” — in name as well as ecology:

  • English viewed forests (and other resources) through English eyes. When the English arrived in North America around 1630, they did so in the midst of a lumber shortage back home in England. Of course, then, this “New World” seemed full of riches, because there were trees everywhere! The settlers immediately started gobbling the lumber, using only the best quality wood for even simple things like fences, exporting boatloads of lumber to England, and building whole houses out of wood where in England they would have used mostly stone. This led to massive regional deforestation and firewood shortages as early as 1638 (p.121). And even as early as the 1790s most contemporary naturalists agreed that deforestation had changed the land significantly enough to notably change the weather in New England.
  • Indians practiced mobility; English imposed fixity. Many Indian groups had multiple seasonal dwellings — usually one for summer and one for winter — that coincided with where food could be found at a given time. This had the added benefit of allowing the various places they inhabited to recover rather than be used up. The English, however, treated habitation, land use, and land ownership as a permanent thing, which led to quicker soil exhaustion, deforestation, and game extinction. (This book provides a detailed case study of how this led to the extinction of the beaver in New England, p. 97-107.) In addition, the English basically propagated two “proper” uses of land: farming and grazing. The problem is that when cattle graze freely, sometimes they eat tasty farm crops. English law held each individual landowner responsible to guard their own property (including crops and cattle), and this led to all English-settled land being parceled and fenced off. Eventually, this fencing off of the land had huge impacts in restricting the mobility of Indians and in causing many foundational food and livelihood species for the Indians (e.g. bison, beaver, salmon) to dwindle significantly due to lack of habitat.
  • English settlers brought some “friends” over from England with them. The English brought over and raised domestic cattle in large herds. These herds ate all the native grasses (e.g. broomstraw, wild rye, and Spartinas), which were not adapted for long-term grazing, and in their place sprung up “English grasses” that had stowed away in cow fodder and cow dung: bluegrass (aka your lawn), white clover, dandelions, chickweeds, bloodworts, mulleins, mallows (yes, marshmallows), nightshades, plantains (aka “Englishman’s foot”), and stinging nettles are all European imports! (p.142) As Cronon puts it, “Many of these European weeds — to say nothing of grains, vegetables, and orchard trees — would eventually be among the commonest plants of the American landscape, their populations sustained in all places by the habitats human beings and domesticated animals created for them” (p.143, emphasis added). A few animal immigrants include the black fly, the cockroach, the honeybee, the gray rat, and the house mouse (not to mention cattle, pigs, and other farm animals).

The extent to which English settlers turned the land they took over into a New England can be seen in this example:

“The most serious threat to English crops, especially wheat and rye, was… a fungus: the ‘blast,’ or black stem rust, an Old World disease which first appeared in New England in the early 1660s. … It resulted in the virtual elimination of wheat raising in a number of settlements…. Colonists soon discovered that the blight was most common in areas where barberry bushes — another imported European weed…– were growing…. Barberries were indeed the host which supported one phase of the rust’s life cycle, and so produced thousands of spores that destroyed any wheat plants which lay down wind of them. A European weed, in other words, had brought with it a European disease that made it exceedingly difficult for European farmers, keeping European animals, to raise a key European crop. The blasting of wheat was thus a kind of metaphor for the extent to which Old World ecological relationships had been reproduced in New England” (p.154-5, emphasis added).

In addition to the genocide of millions of people (which I read about in Little House/Wounded Knee) the advent of European colonization also caused the decimation of native ecosystems to such a massive extent that we now have forgotten many of the actual native species and think of the immigrant species as natives. (Sadly, this sounds awfully familiar.)


It’s one thing to argue about the merits of, say, Europeans adopting potatoes from Peru, or Africans adopting bananas from Brazil… but it’s another thing to talk about an ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM, BASICALLY A WHOLE CONTINENT, STEAMROLLERING ITSELF IN CARBON COPY OVER ANOTHER ALREADY-EXISTING ECOSYSTEM AND CONTINENT. (Not to mention the accompanying decimation of the people.) It just makes me feel lost and sad. Single-minded conviction that one’s own system is superior to all others leads to a world — literally an entire continent — of destruction.

Tune in next time for “Names on the Land” by George R. Stewart, a book about the how and why of place names in this country.

1491: The Book that Turned My World Upside-Down

Since my last post it’s been a crazy few months, including a move and the birthdays of everyone in my house — but I FINALLY finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, and I’m all excited to talk about it! So let’s dive in! (NOTE: If you are considering reading this book and haven’t, STOP NOW. Here there be spoilers!)

What I Expected to Find…

1491 charles c mannWhen I chose this book for my “Imperial Geography” project, I expected that it would give me somewhat of a baseline. One of my driving questions behind this project was “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America?” So I wanted to know, well, what the earth looked like BEFORE European settlers colonized North America.

Just from reading the dust jacket of 1491, I knew that there was more here when Columbus arrived than I had learned about in school (or at least, more than I remember). I figured I’d hear about all sorts of technologies and practices that made 15th-century North, Central, and South American contemporaries just as “advanced” or “civilized” (if not more) than their European contemporaries. And there were those things. Like:

  • What we today call “the Maya” were actually a “collection of about five dozen kingdoms and city-states in a network of alliance and feuds as convoluted as those of seventeenth-century Germany” (p.24).
  • The Inka empire in 1491 was the greatest on earth, the equivalent to “if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo” (p.64).
  • A large part of the reason that Indians were able to be defeated by invading Europeans was that Indian strongholds from North to South America were first visited by European disease (usually smallpox) that killed 90-95% of the population and caused political fragmentation, giving conquistadors a HUGE foothold: “Conquistadors tried to take Florida half a dozen times between 1510 and 1560 — and failed each time” (p.91-2).

One of the examples of the “advanced-ness” of some of these cultures that really stuck with me was a fairly long and detailed section on Nahuatl/Mexica philosophy and poetry. The excerpts were really beautiful and complex — a part of me wanted to make a study of it! Unfortunately, these days it’s a pretty obscure topic:

Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime [Nahuatl philosopher-poets] meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. … Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence — and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole. (p.123)

To me, this passage sums up a lot of my feelings on the topic of Native peoples — they were (and ARE!) an integral part of our human family. Sadly much of their ancient culture was destroyed and lost, but thankfully some of it — and some of them! — live on, and we can all benefit from their unique perspective. As the late Richard Twiss often said, Native Christians have something without which the rest of the church is incomplete. We need each other. So I’m sad not only that so many human/Indian lives were lost to European invasion, but that still today the rest of us have yet to fully embrace and learn from our Native sisters and brothers.

What I Didn’t Expect…

Before we got into any talk of different civilizations or people groups, the author nailed us with a “check your privilege” stereotype-buster. Mann leads off by explaining what he calls “Holmberg’s Mistake,” which is, in short, the mistaken assumption that all Indians and Indian cultures are by nature simplistic and naive. This assumption leads to the two sides of the stereotype coin, the “savage brute” — the Indian who is hopelessly degenerate — and the “noble savage” — the Indian who is childlike, innocent, and admirably at one with nature. Adherents to the “savage brute” school may think of Indians as animals; adherents to the “noble savage” school may venerate Indians as mystical, ancient elements of nature, hence the “wise old Indian” trope.

Going along with this “noble savage” stereotype about Native peoples is “what geographer William Denevan calls ‘the pristine myth’ — the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land” (p.5). Mann points out that the modern environmentalist movement has been based on this myth — think of the famous crying Indian commercial from the 70’s. But not only do these ideas of the “noble savage” and the “pristine America” turn Native peoples into something akin to endangered animals whose habitats need protection, they’re also… totally untrue! At least according to Mann and a wave of new research. (Stick with me — examples below…)

Mann’s thesis in this book — and it’s one that totally shocked me, in all honesty — is that the “pristine myth” is totally false, and that Indians from the Amazon to Alaska actually did have an impact on the land — a managerial impact. He takes the opportunity of this book to acquaint us with all sorts of new research about the peoples of the ancient Americas, and I have to say, his research and the research of the experts he interviewed is pretty compelling. According to this book:

  • Indian farmers in Central America were such masterful farmers that they developed  maize — and no one has figured out how they did it yet! In fact, “one writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica” (p.177). EPIC.
  • Plains Indians strategically used fire to maintain North American prairies as essentially a giant game park, while they gathered food and farmed elsewhere, away from the big game. Mann argues that “carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature — but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing” (p.252). MIND. TOTALLY. BLOWN.
  • Amazonian Indians practiced a complex form of agro-forestry and much of the rainforest is actually “managed forests”. In some places that are known to have been inhabited by early Amazonians, “almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food” (p.304-5), compared to 20% for non-managed forests. In addition, ancient Amazonian Indians had a particular way of enriching the thin tropical soil so much that even today farms are built on “terra preta” left over from their cultivation — and scientists today are still stumped as to how they made it. WHAAAAAT.

Seriously, there were so many mind-blowing revelations in this book that I still feel like I’m reeling, even though I finished reading like a week ago.

Confession Time

Honestly, when I first encountered Mann’s thesis — and even when I got to the part about the prairie being a product of Indian fire management — I was skeptical. I resisted. “But,” I said, “How can I respect Native environmental activists’ authority and self-stated cultural connection with the land if they’ve been CHANGING it this whole time???” I reacted really strongly and had a lot of push-back. I started to get nervous to read the Winona LaDuke  book I’ve got on my list down the road… How could the indigenous inhabitants of this land have authority if they controlled the land just like we do today?

At the end of 1491, Mann has this to say: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens” (p.326).

My push-back was about wanting to hang onto the nice, wise, “noble savage” image that I’d inadvertently embraced. I wanted Indians to be the moral guides, the ones who somehow stay clean and untouched by modern environmental sins. It’s easier that way — Westerners are the bad guys; Indians are the good guys; bada-bing, bada-boom. But you know what? They’re people too! In fact, they’re a LOT of peoples. Some of those peoples (like the Maya) overextended — they tried to live beyond what their land could sustain and it set the stage for political upheaval that probably led to their demise. Some peoples cut down trees to create farms. Some of them maintained forests but encouraged food-bearing trees to grow in greater abundance than the other trees. All of them ate food (plants and animals) and left traces of their existence and affected the land they lived on. The point is that everyone tried to interact with their land in a way that meant survival, and the ones that were most successful for the longest time, it seems, were the ones who also did it with respect, and with a thought to the sustainability of their relationship with their “large gardens”. 

There’s a concept that I’ve heard from multiple Lakota friends I’ve talked to — though I believe it originates with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) — called the “seventh generation.” Basically the idea is that all decisions should be made thinking about the impact of those decisions seven generations from now. To me, this concept sums up how many Indian cultures think about humanity’s relationship with the land. Is it wrong to live in a way that leaves traces on the land? Certainly not! To the contrary, all relationships leave marks on all the participants. However, I think it’s quite possible — even advisable — for humans to relate to and manage the land in a good way that leads to good outcomes for both the land and our descendants in seven generations.


Native peoples still have an authoritative voice as stewards of this land for thousands and thousands of years. They can make mistakes — they’re not perfect either, and they’re not required to be animalistic nature-sprites — they’re human, like the rest of us. But to me, that makes the goal of balance and cooperation with the rest of nature seem all the more attainable and worth pursuing. You don’t have to be a “noble savage” to be an environmentalist — you just have to want your children for the next seven generations to have food to eat and a beautiful place to live. And while the rest of us immigrants have come to live here through violence, we still can share in the responsibility of, as Charles Mann says, “creating the world’s largest gardens” for our children.

Next up: a book that Charles Mann references in 1491 — William Cronon’s  Changes in the Land. Hopefully it won’t take me three months this time! =)

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 13, Boarding Schools & B.S.

In the thirteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, I read a crappy book, a good book, and a fantastic critical review, and I finally meet Geronimo. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

My Heart Is On the Ground is a crappy book.

my heart is on the ground cover ann rinaldi
Do not pay money for this book!

There’s just no other way to say it, folks. Despite the fact that I knew there was some controversy surrounding this book, I tried to come at it with an open mind. I’ve actually read 8-10 other books by Ann Rinaldi, who is a prolific author of children’s historical fiction, and I really liked some of them. So I really, really tried to give her the benefit of the doubt here.

But once I started reading, there was no denying the awfulness.

From the start of the novel, where Rinaldi has the protagonist, Nannie Little Rose, write her “die-eerie” in stereotypical broken “Indian English”, to the afterword, where Rinaldi says of the Carlisle Indian School children whose gravestones inspired her to create this novel, “I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they now reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it” (p.196) — this novel is just bad.

And not only is it bad — it’s just plain fake.

The whole time I was reading, my Spidey senses were tingling. Wouldn’t Nannie say “Lakota” and not “Sioux”? Why did she just blame her chiefs for giving away their land? Did she just describe white people as “very powerful” and say that “They know almost everything on the earth’s surface and in the heavens, also!” (p.7) ?? (No, I did not make that up.)

When I got to the end, I immediately read a review of the book co-authored by Debbie Reese (who runs the blog American Indian Children’s Literature) and eight other native and non-native women. And there, I learned that my Spidey senses had been right.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I will simply excerpt some of Ms. Reese & co’s fantastic article below. I strongly recommend reading the review in its entirety, as it is impressively thorough and very educational in and of itself. (All quotes below are from the above-linked article by Reese & co. All emphasis is mine.)

In response to Rinaldi’s depiction of Native children wanting to stay at Carlisle rather than go home with their parents:

In her autobiography, Helen Sekaquaptewa (Hopi) remembers that parents taught their children to play a game similar to hide-and-seek to avoid being taken away to boarding school. In Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900-1940, Brenda J. Child (Ojibwe) reports:

“The most painful story of resistance to assimilation programs and compulsory school attendance laws involved the Hopis in Arizona, who surrendered a group of men to the military rather than voluntarily relinquish their children. The Hopi men served time in federal prison at Alcatraz” (p. 13).

Many children died at Carlisle, and they died running away from the institution. Child (1995), in her study of boarding schools, found that running away was a universal thread that ran across boarding schools and across generations. Physical and emotional abuse, including sexual abuse, is well documented in the stories of survivors of the boarding schools in the United States and Canada. Children were beaten and worse for not understanding English, for speaking their languages, for minor infractions of military rule, for running away, even for grieving. Many died of illnesses, many died of abuse, and many died of broken hearts.
On Rinaldi’s appropriation and story-invention of the names of the children who died at Carlisle:
Appropriation of our lives and literatures is nothing new. Our bodies and bones continue to be displayed in museums all over the U.S. and Canada. For the last hundred years, many of our traditional stories have been turned into books for children without permission and with little if any respect given to their origins or sacred content. Now, Rinaldi has taken this appropriation of Native lives and stories one step further. That she would take the names of real Native children from gravestones and make up experiences to go with them is the coldest kind of appropriation. These were children who died lonely and alone, without their parents to comfort them. They were buried without proper ceremony in this lonely and sad place. Native people who visit the cemetery today express a profound sense of sadness.
On Rinaldi’s lack of both accuracy and cultural authenticity:
Contrary to Rinaldi’s statement in the historical note that “most of the graduates were able to earn a living away from the reservation,” and “others went on to higher education,” evidence points to the opposite. Earning a living “away from the reservation” meant going into Indian service and working on a reservation or agency— or in one of the dozens of off-reservation boarding schools modeled after Carlisle. And very few children graduated. Of the total population of 10,000, only 758 students—or fewer than 10%—graduated. More students ran away than graduated—1,758 runaways are documented.
The events in My Heart Is On the Ground are not plausible. In 1880, a Lakota child of the protagonist’s age would have been well-educated by her aunties and grandmothers in Lakota tradition and lore, and ways of seeing the world and behaving in right relation to it. She would probably have had younger children to care for, as well as older sisters in her extended family, her tiospaye, to emulate.
A Lakota child in 1880 would not have referred to herself as “Sioux.” (beginning at p. 6) It is a French corruption of an enemy-name used by the Ojibwe. She would have referred to herself by her band (Sicangu) or location (Spotted Tail Agency) or from a much smaller familial group, her tiospaye. And she would certainly not have referred to Indian men as “braves.”
On putting stereotypes in a Native protagonist’s mouth:
Throughout, Rinaldi uses stereotyped language to express Lakota (or “Indian”) speech and thought patterns. These include over-emphasis on compound words (e.g., “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us,” “Time-That-Was-Before,” “night-middle-made”) to “sound Indian,” when there is no basis for such use. For instance, Rinaldi makes up the term “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us” as Nannie’s word for “interpreter.” Yet there is a Lakota word for “interpreter”: iyeska, literally, one who speaks well. The original term meant “translator,” since most translators at the time were the mixed-blood children of Indian women and white traders.
In response to every possible objection:
Individuals in the field of children’s literature may dismiss our concerns and ask, “But is it a good book?” We think not. From a literary perspective, it lacks consistency and logic. As a work of historical fiction, it is rife with glaring factual errors. As a work of “multicultural” literature, it lacks authenticity.
Seriously, folks — I cannot overstate the awfulness and potential damaging-ness of this book. Please, if you ever see someone about to read it, kindly say to them, “I’ve heard there are some major inaccuracies in that book…” and then send them a link to AICL’s review. (Here it is again, just to keep it handy.) There are WAY better books about both young Native people and the history of Indian boarding schools.
Speaking of which…

A great children’s book about Indian boarding schools

As a native-authored counterpoint to Rinaldi’s disasterpiece, I grabbed a copy of Larry Loyie’s As Long as the Rivers Flow. This beautifully illustrated (and autobiographical) children’s book tells the story of Larry’s last summer before being sent away to boarding school.

larry loyie family illustration
Larry & family (dad, siblings, grandparents) as the kids imitate their owl

This might be like any other “I’m gonna miss my family while I’m away at school” book… except that Larry’s parents were forced by the Canadian government to send him to a mission school for First Nations children or be jailed.

While the bulk of the book focuses on Larry’s time spent with his family (including siblings nursing a baby owl back to health and grandma shooting dead a huge grizzly bear), the epilogue includes photos and biographical information about the time that Larry and his siblings spent attending St. Bernard’s Mission residential school in Alberta.

You may remember from early on in the Little House series that I have previously struggled with how and when children should be told about difficult events. What most impressed me about this book is how truthfully AND appropriately it teaches children about an important topic in our history.

This book was the perfect truthful antidote to Ann Rinaldi’s fake stuff. Difficult truth > easy lies.

Wounded Knee Ch. 17

In this chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, we pick up with the Chiricahua Apaches (whom we saw last in Chapter 9). Their part in this book concludes in what is becoming an all-too-predictable fashion: Indians do things US doesn’t like, US tells Indians to surrender, Indians resist and/or flee for X amount of time, eventually US catches Indians and forces them to go somewhere else than where they want to be. Bada bing, bada boom. It’s like a really predictably awful sitcom, except full of death and sorrow.

Anyway, since that outline is pretty familiar, I’ll just pull out a couple of unique points that struck me while reading the story of the Chiricahua Apaches:

1) It’s cool to see the “character development” of General Crook — he finally treats the Apaches like PEOPLE!

Brown notes this attitude change himself in his narration about Crook, but it’s cool too just to see the change in Crook’s own words. When he is called in by the US to “deal with” the Apaches, his first move is to… search out individual Apaches and sit down to talk with them. I was SHOCKED when I read this! Imagine — asking the people you’re supposed to supervise what THEY think! It’s a sad commentary on the rest of the book that this seems like such a refreshingly novel concept to me at this point. Anyway, here is an excerpt from Crook’s assessment after his chats with some Chiricahua folks:

“I discovered immediately that a general feeling of distrust of our people [whites/Americans] existed among all the bands of the Apaches. It was with much difficulty that I got them to talk, but after breaking down their suspicions they conversed freely with me. They told me … that they had lost confidence in everybody, and did not know whom or what to believe. … [The Apaches] had not only the best reasons for complaining, but had displayed remarkable forbearance in remaining at peace” (p.403-4, emphasis added).

Oh my goodness — THANK YOU FOR ACKNOWLEDGING THIS. I have been SO impressed SO many times with various Indigenous folks’ commitment to honoring their peace agreements throughout this book, and Crook is the FIRST white person in this book to acknowledge the strength of character it takes to get kicked around all the time and STILL keep up your end of the deal. (Again, the fact that he is a rarity speaks volumes about the crappiness of most of the rest of the US representatives in the book.)

2) We finally meet the famous Geronimo and — surprise! — he’s not a fierce, bloodthirsty warmonger.

Geronimo was just another regular guy trying to take care of himself and his people in whatever way he could. But the white newspapers made him into a monster. In fact, one of the strong themes in this chapter is how the anti-Apache sensationalism of the newspapers (beginning with those near the US-Mexico border, which then fed other papers around the country) had a strong negative effect on all efforts to have straightforward communication and relations with the Chiricahuas. In the end, when Crook promised Geronimo & co. a peaceful return to their White Mountain Reservation if they surrendered, stories about “dangerous Geronimo” probably strongly influenced the US Government’s refusal to meet those terms, and the rumors flying around contributed to Geronimo getting spooked and fleeing the scene. After Geronimo fled, the papers eviscerated Crook and he was reprimanded and forced to resign.

3) Carlisle Indian School is far-reaching and terrifying.

After Geronimo & co. were later convinced to surrender, both they and the “friendly” Apaches (including the Aravaipas, who we met back in Chapter 9) were shipped to Florida, where many died from consumption and suffered in the humid climate. (Not quite like Arizona!) Additionally, Brown notes that “the government took all their children away from them and sent them to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and more than fifty of their children died there” (p.412). This is terrifying and sad, because the government is totally destroying all connection between the generations and all connection to the land each people is tied to, thus totally disintegrating every major thread of the fabric of Apache society (and others…). Not to mention, here they are sending children who are from Arizona, and have been shipped to Florida, to live in Pennsylvania! With no family and maybe no one else who speaks their language! Wow. Talk about total uprooting and disconnection. Seeing it here in the “real life history” section makes Carlisle even more sinister in my brain, and it makes me even madder that Rinaldi portrayed it so falsely and toothlessly.

The Chiricahua Apaches: Where are they now?

Because Florida was such a bad climate for the Chiricahuas, Crook and other white allies worked to get them permission to return to the Southwest. They succeeded — but Arizona refused to allow them inside its borders, so the Mescaleros allowed the Apaches to live on part of their reservation. Today there are two federally-recognized Chiricahua/Apache tribes: one, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, lives in Oklahoma in their tribal jurisdictional area and numbers around 650; the other is the joint Mescalero Apache Tribe, whose reservation is located in south-central New Mexico and numbers just over 3,000 tribal enrollees. You can read more about all the Chiricahua peoples here.


As I near the end of this project, I keep coming back to the importance of telling true stories. When false stories are told, it can do a lot of damage. Rinaldi’s false story has probably taught a lot of children a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about Lakota people and Carlisle. The southern newspapers made the climate incredibly volatile for US-Apache relations in the 1880s. On the other hand, pursuing the true story can also have powerful impact. Larry Loyie’s sharing of his experiences of being torn from his family is a powerful witness that is accessible even to children. When Crook took the time to hear the true story of the Chiricahuas people he was supposed to serve, he gained their trust and did his job better for it (even though his compassion got him fired).

The moral of the story: Take the time to learn the true story. And then, fight the false ones. Because which story we tell matters. 

Tune in next week for Little Town on the Prairie (LH #7) and The Game of Silence (Birchbark House #2 — YAYYYYYY!).