Fiction Posing As Truth
A Critical Review of Ann Rinaldi's My Heart Is on the Ground: The diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl.
Authors’ note: This March, Debbie Reese (Nambe), a doctoral student who studies representations of Native Americans in children’s literature, saw My Heart Is On the Ground: The Dairy of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl in a local bookstore. She picked it up, put it down in distaste, but then decided it couldn’t be ignored. Reading through the book, she was outraged and called Beverly Slapin of Oyate and read excerpts to her. Beverly did not look forward to reading it herself. A day later and equally outraged, Beverly called it the “worst book she had ever read.” Both women began talking about this book to colleagues.
Debbie wrote to Barb Landis, a research specialist on Carlisle School, the Native American boarding school that is at the core of the book. Barb had also read the book and also felt it was an outrageous depiction of a tragic period in Native American history.
We are fully aware we have used the word “outraged” three times in this piece so far, but there is no other word that captures the intensity of emotion we all feel about this book. A series of Internet and telephone discussions followed, and the circle grew to the nine women who are listed alphabetically below.
My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl is a new book published by Scholastic as part of its “Dear America” series of historical fiction diaries. Immensely popular, the series is prominent both in bookstores and in the book order forms that are a regular feature of elementary school life. Because the books are published by the widely respected Scholastic, many parents and teachers don’t think twice about buying them.Rinaldi’s story (written for children ages 9-12) takes place in 1880 and tells of Nannie Little Rose, a Lakota child sent to the government-run boarding school for Native Americans in Carlisle, PA. In the author’s note, Rinaldi writes that she visited the Indian burial ground at the school and saw the “dozens of white headstones bearing the names of Native-American children from all tribes who had died while at the school. The names, with the tribes inscribed underneath, were so lyrical that they leapt out at me and took on instant personalities. Although many of these children attended Carlisle at dates later than that of my story, I used some of their names for classmates of Nannie Little Rose. … I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they now reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it.” We doubt it. In writing this story, Rinaldi has done a tremendous disservice to the memories of the dead children whose names she used, to their families, to Native children today, and to any child who reads and believes this book to be an accurate or authentic story about boarding school life. She has cast the government boarding school in a positive light as though it were a good thing, when it is not regarded as such by Native Americans, historians, educators, or sociologists.
What is the true history of Carlisle? It was founded in 1879 by Captain Richard Henry Pratt, whose main philosophy was: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Under his administration, the school was set up to break spirits, to destroy traditional extended families and cultures, to obliterate memories and languages, and especially to make the children deny their Indianness, inside and out.
During the period in which My Heart Is On the Ground takes place, Native people were confined to reservations and not allowed to leave without permission of the government-appointed Indian agent assigned to their reservations. Many parents were coerced into sending their children to these early schools. Many children were kidnapped and sent far away to schools where they were kept for years on end. Children died at the school, and died running away from the school, and they were beaten for speaking their Native languages. Physical and emotional abuse is well documented in boarding schools in the United States as well as Canada.
Appropriation of our lives and literatures is nothing new. Our bodies and bones continue to be displayed in U.S. and Canadian museums. 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 appropriation 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.Rinaldi chose to name this book by appropriating a Cheyenne proverb that goes, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong their weapons.” In its original form, this statement is about the strength and courage of Indian women. In its original form, the phrase suggests total defeat, the conquering of a nation, the death of a way of life. Throughout this book, the child protagonist, Nannie Little Rose, uses the phrase “my heart is on the ground” whenever she happens to feel sad or upset. This is a trivialization of the belief system of a people.
Lack of Historical Accuracy
Throughout the book, Rinaldi uses the voice of Nannie Little Rose to teach non-Native readers about Native ways. It is an artificial device and Rinaldi’s presentation of Native culture is fraught with factual errors. A basic criterion of historical fiction is that facts about people who actually lived must be accurate. Here are just a few of the errors:
- Sitting Bull was Hunkpapa Lakota, not “of Cheyenne nation” (Dec. 13 entry).
- American Horse was not a “chief of the Red Cloud Sioux.” He was a cousin to Red Cloud (Dec. 21 entry).
- Wealth is not measured by the number of poles in a tipi (Jan. 30 entry).
- The whites did not “give” (Dec. 12 entry) the Black Hills to the Lakota people. By treaty, the Lakota were able to retain a small portion of what had been their land for millennia.
- When Spotted Tail visited Carlisle in 1880 and found his children unhappy, in military uniform, and drilling with rifles, he insisted that they return with him to Rosebud. In Rinaldi’s rendition of this episode, Nannie writes (p. 121) that the children did not want to go with Spotted Tail, and that he even had to drag one of the children into the wagon. But according to historical accounts, the scene was just the opposite. When Spotted Tail visited Carlisle, he learned how miserable and homesick the children were and took all his children to the train with him. Pratt guarded the rest of the children, as there were indications that a general stampede for the train might take place. Some children managed to steal away and hide on the train, but, at Harrisburg, the train was searched and a young Oglala girl was found and dragged screaming back to captivity.
- In the historical note, Rinaldi says graduates of the school were able to earn a living away from the reservation. There is no evidence of this. The National Archives document that fewer than 10% of the students graduated, and more students ran away than graduated: 758 of the 10,000 students graduated, and 1,758 of the 10,000 students ran away.
Lack of Cultural Authenticity
Again, there are numerous examples of this, but here are a few.
- A Lakota child in 1880 would not refer to herself as “Sioux.” 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).
- A Lakota child would refer to Sitting Bull by his Lakota name, Tatanka Iotanka.
- If a Lakota child had been encouraged to write in a diary that would be read by the white teachers and/or matrons, she would not have made fun of them in the pages of the diary (Dec. 13 entry: “… there is Woman-Who-Screams-A-Lot. She is bad to the eye. Fat and ugly.”)
- Nannie’s entry about Sun Dance, the most sacred ceremony of Lakota people, is exoticized and reflects a lack of understanding of Sun Dance, which is a thank-offering for the good of the community.
- Lakota children of that time period did not engage in the same grieving rituals as adults (see Feb. 4 entry about a burial). Moreover, what Nannie describes is not a Lakota grieving ritual.
- Rinaldi’s interpretation of Lakota belief is oversimplified and distorted. (Apr. 30 entry: “A war club has a spirit. A prairie dog has two spirits. Birds, insects, and reptiles have spirits.”)
A basic criterion of good children’s literature is that it be free of stereotypes. However, they abound in children’s books about Native Americans and are usually found in descriptive passages about Native characters. A few authors like Rinaldi take this one step further, by placing stereotypical language and images in an Indian child protagonist’s own words. Here are two examples:
- On Dec. 2, Nannie writes, “Worst bad part is Missus Camp Bell see I am frightened. With my people this is not good. We must be brave.”
- Later, “Our men are very brave and honorable. Our women are noble.”
Nowhere in this book is to be found the screaming children, thrown onto horse-drawn wagons, being taken away from their homes. Nowhere is to be found the desperately lonely children, heartbroken, sobbing into the night. Nowhere is to be found the terrified children, stripped naked and beaten, for trying to communicate with each other and not understanding what was expected of them. Nowhere is to be found the unrelenting daily humiliation, in word and deed, from the teachers, matrons, and staff. Nowhere is to be found the desperate runaways, lost, frozen in the snow. And nowhere to be found is the spirit of resistance.
But there was resistance among the Indian students, resistance that was deep, subtle, and long-lasting. Besides running away, this resistance took many forms: physical, spiritual, and intellectual. Children destroyed property and set fires. They refused to speak English. They subverted teachers’ and matrons’ orders whenever they could. In My Heart on the Ground, the only resistance is Charles Whiteshield’s “war dance,” which is presented as a shameful thing. Resistance and the courage it represents receive no attention in this book. However, in books written by Indian authors (Francis LaFlesche’s The Middle Five and Basil H. Johnston’s Indian School Days), this resistance is a central part of their stories.
To those who would argue that “it is possible” that a Native child might have had Nannie Little Rose’s experiences, the overwhelming body of evidence, written and oral, suggests otherwise. The premise of this book — that a Native child would, within a period of ten months, move from someone who reads and writes limited English and has a totally Indian worldview to someone who is totally fluent and eloquent in a foreign language and has been totally assimilated into a foreign culture, and is better off for the experience — is highly unlikely. Brainwashing did not come readily. Brainwashing took time.Given the marketing and distribution forces behind My Heart is on the Ground, we know it will probably be more widely read than any other book about the boarding school experience. This book only adds to the body of misinformation about Native-American life and struggle in the United States and Canada. This one book epitomizes the utter lack of sensitivity and respect that characterizes the vast majority of children’s books about Native Americans. Non-Native readers of My Heart Is on the Ground will continue to be validated in whatever feelings of superiority they may have; Native children will continue to be humiliated.
In the author’s note, Rinaldi says that “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). That these children might smile upon Rinaldi from their “Happy Hunting Ground” is the epitome of white fantasy: that Indian people will forgive and even smile upon white people, no matter the atrocities past and present.
*Note: This review was adapted from a much longer article that can be read at the Oyate website: www.oyate.org. That article includes material about personal names in Native cultures; details about Lucy Pretty Eagle, colonialism, and authorial perspective; extensive notes addressing other errors in the book; and extended quotes from survivors of boarding schools that could not be included here due to space limitations.