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Honoring Alaska's Indigenous Literature

Vivian Martindale
ED 493: Examining Alaska's Indigenous
Children's Literature
#1 Book Review: The Button Blanket: A Northwest Coast
Indian Art Activity Book
4/7/04

Nan Mcnutt is the author of several books in a series titled Northwest Indian Art Series published by Sasquatch Books in Seattle. "The Button Blanket: A Northwest Coast Indian Art Activity Book" is a 41 page picture book containing the story of a Kwakiutl girl named Ann who undertakes the creation of her first button blanket. The book also introduces activities that provide information about the arts and lifeways of Native peoples living along the Northwest Coast of the United States and Canada.

The author or perhaps publisher, as the title proclaims, is a "Northwest Coast Indian" book. The title does not differentiate between the many tribes found throughout Northwestern United States and Canada. The author does not state whether or not she is Native American or what her connections might be to the Northwest region, although she acknowledges teachers in Petersburg Alaska for their cooperation in developing the activities in the book. The tribal affiliation that is acknowledged, however, comes from 'Hereditary' chief of the Kwiksutianeuk Tribe of the Kwakiutl Nation, Chief William Scow. I am not aware of the term 'hereditary' and how it pertains to this particular tribal group but the term chief is often misleading as some of the Northwest coast tribal groups do not have 'chiefs' according to the Western Hollywood movie tradition. The author or publisher does not clearly mention a recommendation by the tribe or persons associated with the Kwakiutl. Like many books about Native Americans there is no clearly defined tribal affiliation, recommendation, or information provided by the author. I would assume that if the author was Native or had a tribal or familial relationship they would have stated so.

There are about 4000 members of the Kwakiutl tribe (pronounced KWAH-kee-oo-tel). Originally there were 28 tribes. The "kwakwaka'wakw", which is what they originally called themselves, occupy the coastal areas of British Columbia from Smith Inlet in the north to Cape Mudge in the south, west to Quatsino and east to Knight Inlet. This is a very specific tribal group and I feel the book should have acknowledged the differences in the Northwest coast groupings of Native peoples. However, on page 30 there is a small map depicting a shaded area, which shows the region inhabited by the Kwakiutl.

Since the book's main theme is the art, I would wonder why a person by the name of Yasu Osawa was enlisted to be the illustrator. The author does not say what connections the illustrator has to this particular tribal group or region for that matter. I have no idea, nor does the author mention if this person is Native American. In addition, on the front cover, the author mentions that the illustrations are by Yasu Osawa and the Northwest coast art is by Barry Scow, however in the acknowledgements there is no illustrator profile. The middle of the book, which contains explanations about the shapes depicted in the art, is a good example of adequate research, however, the front cover throws me. Being that I am not familiar with Kwakiutl art I cannot say whether or not the circles depicted in the tail of the whale are accurate. I know that in the Tlingit culture, which is further north than the community featured in the book, there are no circles but ovoids so this picture would be misleading. Every time I look at the cover I immediately notice the oddity of completely round shapes.

]The Button Blanket is an activity book designed for children ages 6-10, which includes an adult teaching guide with activities and references for further reading. The book is divided into sections, which flow smoothly together to form a concise activity book. First there is the story of Ann and how she sets out to make her first button blanket. The second section concerns the artwork and contains the activities provided by the author. Through the various activities, children can understand the shapes that make up Northwest Coast designs. The third section is the adult guide that offers more about the story, a section describing the importance of crests, the potlatch, tools and family, along with complete illustrations on how to create the button blanket.

Amazon.com claims, "This best-selling series offers the only activity books that teach children about Northwest Coast Indians. These volumes are reviewed for cultural accuracy by tribal members, and Northwest Native artists create all the artwork." However, I searched the web for information which would back up these facts but I couldn't find any and the acknowledgements certainly don't state this. I would venture to guess that the introduction to the book provided by Amazon was submitted by the publisher.

I always hesitate when authors and publishers lump Native groups under one particular region. I feel it is ok to put Native peoples into that kind of categorization when doing a regional series but if readers and teachers are going to make good purchasing decisions, the cover should clearly explain the tribal group depicted in the book.

The illustrations are drawn in black and white pencil and show a modern Native family; however, when Grandma comes into the pictures she is wearing braids. I am not sure if braids where or are the hairstyle of choice among Kwakiutl elder women. Of all the pictures, I think that page 4, showing a close up of Ann counting buttons for her blanket is one that clearly shows her Native characteristics otherwise the rest of the pictures lack that depth.

I am tired of seeing the Northwest Native tribes all clumped together as if they have the same language and the same customs. Yes, some are similar but they are unique culturally and linguistically. As well, I would have liked to have more information about the author and illustrators and to see a tribal endorsement accompany this series.

From my examination of this book I have chosen to award the book 9 salmon on a 'scale' of 14salmon. I recommend this book, however, I have some reservations for authenticity but the book portrays a positive message.

The book reviews are a result of students enrolling in special topics course Ed 493 Examining Alaska Children's Literature taught by Esther A. Ilutsik in the Spring of 2004.

The book reviews are written by the students and are a reflection of their own analysis of the books and have not been altered in any way. The reviewers have given permission to share the book reviews on the HAIL website.

 

 

 

 

 

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Last modified August 21, 2006