Friday, May 13, 2016

Paul Goble - What Is Cultural Appropriation?

“His art is tremendous because he is able to recreate the traditional forms with great accuracy and detail. The designs he draws are completely authentic and his colors are the same ones that were used by the old-timers before the reservation days. He is able to recreate the spirit of the old stories with his illustrations and his words.” 

Joe Medicine Crow, Crow Tribal Historian, and oldest living member of the Crow Tribe

Paul Goble Biography
Paul Goble has felt the pull of the American Indian Tradition "as long as I can remember," he says, "probably since the time my mother read me stories by Grey Owl and Ernest Thompson Seten." As he grew up, Paul Goble read everything he could lay his hands on concerning Native Americans, until he came upon the books enshrining the wisdom of Black Elk, which finally "clinched" for him his life's orientation.

Born, September 27, 1933 in Haslemere, England, he grew up in Oxford where his father was a harpsichord maker, and his mother a professional musician. After two years in the army, Goble studied furniture design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, where he graduated with honors in 1959.

In the same year he was enabled to make his first visit to the United States, which he was followed by a number of summers spent on the reservations. At each successive contact with Indian people his insight into ideas and ways deepened; one of his rewards was adoption by Lakota and Yakima people. "From early childhood I always wanted to know more, and to see the country and wildlife with which the lives and beliefs of Indian people were so closely interwoven."

Goble came to live in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1977, where, except for brief periods, he and his wife, Janet, have lived ever since. Soon after moving to the US his book, The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, won the Caldecott Medal as the year's best illustrated book for children. In more than thirty books, Goble has drawn primarily upon traditional stories of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Blackfoot peoples. " I feel that I have simply seen and learned many wonderful things from Indian people, which most people never have the opportunity to experience. I have simply wanted to express and to share these things which I love so much. To learn something of another culture has given me more facets and perspectives for my own life."


Paul Goble is an award winning author and illustrator of children's books. To date, Mr. Goble has illustrated over 30 books. He has given his entire collection of original illustrations to the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings, South Dakota. Goble, a native of England, studied at the Central School of Art in London. He has lived in the United States since 1977 and became a citizen in 1984. Goble's life-long fascination with Native Americans of the plains began during his childhood when he became intrigued with their spirituality and culture. His illustrations accurately depict Native American clothing, customs and surroundings in brilliant color and detail. Goble researches ancient stories and retells them for his young audiences in a manner sympathetic to Native American ways. Goble lives with his wife in Rapid City, SD.

From his earliest years, Mr. Goble was close to the traditionalist writer Marco Pallis. Goble records some touching memories of this long relationship in the appreciation of Pallis that he contributed to The Way and the Mountain: Tibet, Buddhism, & Tradition. In addition, at the request of Marco Pallis, Goble accompanied Frithjof Schuon and his wife during their trip to the American west in 1959 for the purpose of meeting with American Indians from many tribes. Paul Goble was adopted into the Yakima and Sioux tribes (with the name "Wakinyan Chikala," Little Thunder) by Chief Edgar Red Cloud.


I have recently bought several of Paul Goble's titles, having been charmed by his illustrations and stories. But I felt a nagging sense of doubt... Is this cultural appropriation? Are Native American artists getting sidelined because of this man's work? Is the work accurate at portraying the cultures shown in the books?

I went looking for answers to these questions this morning, and I found the information above. It does seem that the books do a good job of providing a glimpse of various tribal cultures. And the artwork in style and subject does at least as good a job of rendering traditional Native art into modern illustrations as the 1994 film "Black Beauty" did in bringing Anna Sewell's work to the big screen.

But showing an impression of a culture that is not your own will never be the same as living that culture from birth and expressing it from a lifetime of personal experience.

That said, I think if Mr. Goble's intent is to create beautiful books with compelling stories of a culture he admires, then he has done well. He has exposed a lot of young and adult minds to the possibilities or a different way of living.

I cannot speak for other readers of Mr. Goble's work, but he has generated in me an interest in seeking out actual Native American work, past and present, and that can only be a good thing - in my opinion.

One of the things I found while researching this post this morning is a review of "The Girl Who Loved Horses." The author of this review brings up points worth considering, so I have included it, below.

from: manybooks  at: goodreads

For the most part, I enjoyed The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses and truly loved the boldly expressive illustrations. However, while I can certainly understand why this book won the Caldecott, and that many have fond memories of this book, that many simply adore this book, the controversies of authenticity and charges of cultural appropriation that have been levelled at Paul Goble made me approach The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses rather critically and with some trepidation. And while I do think that some of the criticisms have been rather over the top so to speak and exceedingly harsh, Paul Goble has certainly invited some of this himself (with how he has approached the controversies, with his own reactions to the same, reactions that I have found rather extreme and at times childish and petty). With this in mind, the following rather lengthy musings are not so much an analysis of the story and the accompanying illustrations (as I have already mentioned, I generally rather enjoyed them, hence a three star rating), but more my personal attitudes towards the controversies surrounding this work.

For me, personally, one of the main issues with The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses is the lack of specific information about conception and development. Not only is the Native American tribe to which the girl belongs never specifically mentioned, there is also no author's note, no acknowledgement of sources or possible sources. There is thus no way of knowing whether the story is a retelling of a Native American tale (or tales) or whether it represents a story made up by Paul Goble (the story itself is not at all inappropriate in scope, but I can certainly understand why many Native Americans and even some folklorists regard this story with more than a bit of suspicion). And really, not acknowledging the sources of "Native American" tales, especially if they are not written by Native Americans, is seen by quite a few Native Americans as problematic at best; some actually consider it massive and unforgivable cultural appropriation. I personally cannot totally and without a nagging sense of incompleteness enjoy traditional folk or fairy tale retellings that do not have an author's note showing sources, background and the like, but with Native American, Native Canadian retellings (in fact, with many if not most retellings of stories based on aboriginal cultures, taken from aboriginal traditions and lore), leaving this information out is not only a lack, is not only something that leaves out information culturally and often historically relevant and interesting, but is in many ways also rather a sign of disrespect (at least that is my opinion, and I know it is an opinion shared by many Native peoples).

The fact that many teachers use Paul Goble in social studies units or in units specifically on Native American culture is precisely one of the main reasons why some Native American scholars and activists have issues with him and his work, as they basically believe that Paul Goble has gotten very rich and very famous from his retellings (so to speak) of Native American tales, but that he has (at least according to them) never really reached out to Native American communities and tribes (but simply appropriated Native American culture and lore without acknowledgement and without humility).

Goble might have, indeed, vetted his stories with certain tribal elders, as he has claimed (but that is hear-say, and I know that it is not universally accepted). If I were a teacher, while I would most probably use Paul Goble's stories as folklore (but only with older children), I would definitely discuss the controversies surrounding his stories, and I would also juxtapose Goble's stories with tales that have (in my opinion) better and more detailed author's notes. And I would most certainly never feature only Paul Goble's stories, but make his oeuvre part of a unit on Native folklore (I would furthermore make sure that I included folklore stories retold and collected by Native American/Canadian authors, such as Joseph Bruchac, who in fact, almost always includes detailed and interesting supplemental information and appropriate acknowledgements).

Paul Goble
I do realise that author's notes are actually a relatively recent phenomenon, and thus, I was curious as to whether Paul Goble does now include supplemental information in his Native American retellings. And yes, he does seem to now add actual references, although he just lists them and does not specifically state of which of the listed entries he has made use. I'm not trying to sound dismissive here, but to me Paul Goble (even though many of his stories are lovely, with equally wonderful illustrations) still has not done a good enough job documenting his sources (and in the newer books, it seems almost as though he has and very grudgingly responded to the criticism that his earlier books lacked source materials by simply overloading us with a reference section, but one that is simply listed, in a to me rather user unfriendly manner). One is still not given information as to from exactly where, from which of the sources featured, Goble's tales have been gleaned, which in a good supplemental author's note, should and would be the case

But for me, even more problematic (and yes, I know I am veering a bit off topic here, but I think this is necessary) is that for some of the more recent Iktomi retellings (the ones I found in my local library), Paul Goble has actually (in the front material) poked fun at his critics (mostly his Native American critics). In Iktomi And The Coyote, Paul Goble writes "Hi kids! I'M IKTOMI! That white guy, Paul Goble, is telling my stories again. Only Native Americans can tell Native American stories. So, let's not have anything to do with them. Huh?" And in Iktomi and the Ducks: A Plains Indian Story, Paul Goble goes as far as to write in the front material, "There goes that white guy, Paul Goble, telling another story about me ... My attorney will Sioux." Maybe Paul Goble thought and thinks that this was and is funny, but I found it quite offensive and I bet that many Native Americans would find it offensive as well (it certainly does nothing to give me a more positive attitude towards Goble, in fact, it makes him appear childish and petulant).

I was actually more than willing to give Paul Goble the benefit of a doubt with regard to the lack of an author's note in The Girl Who loved Wild Horses (let's face it, only recently, have author's notes come to be common and expected) until I saw these "humorous" quotes in the two Iktomi books I got from the library. I can understand that he might be a bit annoyed and even legitimately angered at some of the criticism (especially if he feels that his books are, in fact, respectful to Native Americans), but his way of showing his displeasure is not at all funny and smacks of the kind of attitudes towards Native Americans that have created this situation. I'm actually glad to have gone to the library and searched for these books because it kind of has justified my rather critical attitude towards Paul Goble and his work. I would still use his work with children, but I would most definitely not only discuss the controversies, I would also be very critical and publicly critical of him (especially with regard to the Iktomi books, that's just so unacceptable, it defies description).

Finally, just to point out again, I actually do think that Paul Goble might have received a perhaps slightly undeserved rough ride with regard to his work as a whole. However, he should have been intelligent enough and intuitive/perceptive enough to have realised that his retellings might feel like cultural approbation to some and perhaps even many Native Americans. I don't think that even if Paul Goble had added what I would call better and more more detailed authors' notes (ones showing not only references but exactly which stories he had used and/or which stories he had been told), it would have silenced all of the criticism and controversy, but I think it might have silenced or perhaps mitigated at least some of it. And in my opinion (and sorry about being repetitive), the supposedly humorous jabs in the front materials of the two Iktomi books I found at our public library show not only disrespect and a patronising attitude towards Native Americans and actually children in general, but also show that Paul Goble obviously has a rather inflated opinion of himself and only very grudgingly accepts any type of criticism.


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