Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Changing a cartoon depicting an Indigenous ceremony

In 2005, the first of my two books called Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day came out, featuring 180 single panel cartoons for grades 4-6. To get the joke, kids must learn the bolded word in each caption.

In 2020, my publisher, Scholastic, told me that a reader in Canada had contacted them to report a cartoon that he/she/they felt was a “stereotypical representation of Indigenous people.” My editor asked me to replace it with a new cartoon for future printings.

* Please do not repost without a link to this post, for context. *

I have no doubt I referred to photos and images of rain dances to create this cartoon, for two reasons. One, I go to significant lengths to ensure my work is accurate, including art (even when I am not the one illustrating, as with all of my picture books). Two, then and now, I couldn’t even begin to pull from my brain what such a scene should look like. 

But in this case, I neglected to save my sources—which is both regrettable and uncharacteristic, since I keep meticulous notes on sources for my writing. 

Admitting that glaring lapse, I sought perspective from tribal chairpeople and organizational directors of multiple Indigenous nations whose customs have included rain dances. 

The feedback I got included differing opinions, some with historical frameworks—all tremendously helpful and equally appreciated. I suspect you’ll also find them illuminating. Quoted verbatim:


The cartoon is not acceptable and is disrespectful. Do not incorporate it into your work.
Osage Nation Wahzhazhe Cultural Center


Perhaps the complaining person thought the immediate rain might was disrespectful. The rain dance is done as a spiritual ceremony. I suppose some Indians would say that the head dress does not depict their traditions. It is so with the Potawatomi Nations containing 10 Indian Tribes. All tribes that I know of were long pants, not short pants.  Even so, I can’t imagine anyone complaining about a picture cartoon. Also, all Tribes that I know wear long pants, not short pants. 

I don’t think it is in good taste to complain about a picture cartoon in a children’s book. I would not do so, but there are “different strokes for different folks” all around the world. 
Citizen Potawatomi Nation


Since Rain Dances are really prayer dances, some may have taken exception to a humorous portrayal of a religious ceremony. Personally, I do not find the cartoon offensive, given your intent to demonstrate or illustrate a vocabulary word for educational purposes. People need to lighten up a bit on ethnic outrage. Your cartoon was not intended to offend, and did not.
Citizen Potawatomi Nation [different person than previous]


Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office


I would state that “rainmaking” is an old trope that marginalizes the realities of complex Native science and religion. This perpetuates harmful stereotypes that infantilizes Native ceremony by removing all context of Native ceremonial life and imposes Western concepts of dance as entertainment.

Also, your cartoon depiction of Native dress is not accurate. “Rain Dance” ceremonies were not practiced by the Osage. From your cartoon it seems you are using an amalgam of Plains tribe stereotypes, but the majority of ceremonies of that nature were practiced by indigenous people of the southwest.

Overall, given the criminal lack of basic cultural sensitivity and knowledge of Native history, using any tribal ceremony as a vehicle for children to learn English vocabulary is offensive. The majority of children are not even taught whose land they live on. At most, they would see your work and continue to think of Native peoples as cartoons and their ceremonial life as silly.
Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office [different person than previous]


With greater public awareness of cultural appropriation, and its effects on Indigenous people, we do not endorse the depiction of Cherokee ceremony by non-tribal citizens.  Furthermore, upon reviewing your piece, it does not appear to depict Cherokee people, but rather a pan-Indian notion of all “Indians” with feathers and headdress. We cannot verify if you correctly depicted any sort of North American Indigenous “Rain Dance.” 

It may have been considered palatable by the general public in the past. However, Indigenous people have been advocating heavily for accurate cultural representation, and ending harmful stereotypes for many years. Today, many long held stereotypes are being dismantled and it appears that is the case with this piece. Going forward, we encourage non-Indigenous people to fully research a culture before attempting to characterize it, and consider the notion that the people of that culture prefer to represent themselves, rather than have a person from a different culture do it for them.
Cherokee Heritage Center

I don’t imagine I’ll be making any more cartoon books, but regardless of the project, now I do my due diligence better than I did with this cartoon. I continue to learn...

The replacement:

Her juggling skills are inimitable. Obviously I’m just a beginner.

I’ve always (and sometimes explicitly) welcomed readers notifying me about any mistakes or insensitivities in my work. Keep it up, citizen editors!


Jeff McGinley said...

I applaud your willingness to change and your empathy.

I also applaud the inclusion of jugglers.
While not a persecuted group, we do get scoffed at on occasion.

Happy trails,

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Ha! Thanks, Jeff.