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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
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Workshop 8: Social Justice and Action - Joseph Bruchac and Francisco Jimenez
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Joseph Bruchac
Biography
Work
Interview
Francisco Jimenèz
Biography
Work
Interview
LeAlan Jones/ Lloyd Newman
Biography
Work
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Authors and Literary Works
The Heart of A Chief

"Eyes ahead. I go into the classroom and quickly slide into the wrong seat -- too close to the front. Big mistake. It's an unwritten rule that Indian kids who don't want to get in trouble sit in the back."

Though Chris Nicola, an 11-year-old Penacook boy, begins his first day of junior high school heavy with apprehension, his sixth-grade year will actually turn out to be a positive interval of self-discovery -- a time of meeting challenges and overcoming them. The character of Chris in this novel emerged from author Joseph Bruchac's experiences teaching workshops where he "encourages Native American children to ... tell their own stories. I've learned a great deal from them about courage, toughness, and faith in the face of overwhelming odds."

Bruchac conceived his main character as:

a boy who leaves the reservation where he has gone for his primary education... Many reservation schools exist in the communities and kids can go to school until they're in the fourth, fifth, or sixth grade. But then he has to go for his remaining education to a school in a nearby town, which is predominantly non-Indian. So for the first time in his life, he becomes a minority. And he encounters some of the problems that you find in schools where ... Native people are not understood, and where he as an individual finds himself faced by such things as books that present Indians in an unfavorable way, or attitudes that really denigrate ... American Indians.

Chris lives on the fictional Penacook Indian Reservation in New Hampshire with his sister, Celeste, and their doting caretakers, Auntie and Grandfather Doda. Though the children are well cared for, they are marked by sorrow from the loss of their parents: their mother was killed in an auto accident and their father, Mito, became an alcoholic after the accident and goes in and out of residential rehab. Chris finds it difficult to be patient through his father's long recovery. And there is always an undercurrent of worry about Doda and Auntie. They are both getting old, and Auntie has diabetes. What would happen if they weren't around anymore?

Though sensitive, Chris is not one to dwell on family troubles. He and close friends from the reservation set about navigating junior high with humor and camaraderie. Chris is a good student, and a keen observer of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways Native Americans are discriminated against in the school and community. He develops an effective way of enlightening teachers and fellow students about their prejudices -- without alienating them. Chris wins hearts and minds through his leadership of a group project that focuses on the hurtful nature of Indian sports team mascots.

"I do a lot of work in reservation communities and Native schools," says Bruchac. "And one of the things that I discovered was that Native kids want to see themselves in stories. They want to see themselves not as cardboard figures or as caricatures ... but as real, fully realized human beings. That's where Chris came from: those kids that I met."

Chris is also showing signs of maturity and leadership back at the reservation. Like many contemporary tribes, the Penacooks are trying to choose between embracing casino gambling, which could alleviate poverty, and preserving sacred lands. Chris shows that he is developing "the heart of a chief" when he helps his people reach a satisfactory solution to a divisive problem.

"You could see Heart of a Chief as a coming-of-age novel," says Bruchac. "To me, coming of age means coming to the realization of who you are and what your potential is. And Chris, in Heart of a Chief, comes of age. He sees who he could be and he begins to walk on that road that will lead him to someplace which is meaningful and powerful, and I think good. He is a character realizing he can take off the mask, and be who he is and be respected as a human being. Fully himself."

back to top Next: Joseph Bruchac: Interview
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