Saturday, March 13, 2010

American Indians in California - Resources

On When Turtles Fly, Deborah Miranda is compiling resources for teachers to use in lesson plans about California. She began this project a few weeks ago, with her post titled 4th Grade California Mission Projects.

When we think of California today, we do not, for the most part, teach about American Indians who were there prior to it becoming "California." When we teach about the Gold Rush, we do it in a celebratory or adventurous fashion, and we fail to teach students that those miners (amongst others) committed horrific crimes against Native people. When we teach about the Missions, we gloss over the treatment of Native people at those missions, and we ignore the legacy the Missions had on the lives of Native people. Some Native people embraced Christianity; some imported elements of Christianity to their existing systems of worship; others rejected it.

Here's Deborah's bio, from her page:
I am a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of the Greater Monterey Bay area in California. Currently I am an Associate Professor in the English Department at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. I teach Composition, Native American Literatures, American Ethnic Literatures, Women's Literatures, Creative Writing (Poetry and Memoir), among other courses. My first book of poetry, Indian Cartography, was published by Greenfield Review Press in 1999 and won the First Book Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas. The Zen of La Llorona, my second collection, was published by Salt Press in 2004.

We can do better, if we are open to revisiting what we were taught. Bookmark her site!
  • If you're a teacher, use it to develop your lesson plans. 
  • If you're a writer, use it to do research.
  • If you're an editor or reviewer, use it to fact check manuscripts and books.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Anne Rockwell's BIG GEORGE: HOW A SHY BOY BECAME PRESIDENT WASHINGTON - Part 2

Yesterday, I posted initial thoughts about Anne Rockwell's picture book biography of George Washington. I'm returning to it today, and will do so again later this week.

In yesterday's post I wrote about the word shared and how Rockwell uses it in two of her books, and I wrote about the persistence with which writers put American Indians in the same sentence as animals.

Today, I want to look at the opening paragraph in the book.
Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America. 
I'm focusing on that paragraph to show you how bias looks and what it teaches.

Anne Rockwell is a prolific writer. Though I've not studied her picture books for very young children, I can see by perusing the titles, that an early childhood teacher would use many of them.

How might her biography look if the focus was George Washington and his interactions with American Indians? That's not the book she wrote, so, some may deem it unfair to criticize her treatment of American Indians and American Indian history. Her first sentence is
Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America.  
Rockwell's book was published in 2008. Three hundred years ago puts the story in the year 1708. Rockwell is correct. At that point in time, there was no United States of America. Her next sentence could be "Instead, there were hundreds of Native Nations." But this is her next sentence:
Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America.
That sentence is also correct. In 1708, there were thirteen English colonies in North America. But! I'd insert an additional sentence, and, I'd rewrite her sentence so that the paragraph would say "Europeans who had fled Europe had come to North American and were occupying the lands that belonged to the Native Nations. These Europeans set up thirteen English colonies."

You following that? I'll put it here, in clean copy. Here's Rockwell's opening paragraph, followed by my rewrite of her opening paragraph:
Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America.

Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were hundreds of Native Nations. Europeans who had fled Europe had come to North America and were occupying lands that belonged to the Native Nations. These Europeans set up thirteen English colonies.
See the difference? See how she shapes the story with her choice of what to say and how to say it? She's telling this story from her point of view as an American. I'm revising her story from the point of view of an American Indian.  Her statements are factually true. So are mine.

But, she avoids telling her readers that the birth of the United States was complicated. She  keeps some information from her readers, and as we saw yesterday, she presents bears, wolves, and, American Indians as something George wasn't afraid of.

She's creating an image for her readers. In that image, American Indians are animal-like and living in the woods. The Indians she presents are not civilized, living in colonies like the Europeans.

But, her presentation is not true! American Indians were, in fact, highly developed, self-governing societies. They had leaders with whom Washington and the like had diplomatic negotiations with.  She is concealing that information from her readers. Being generous, I can say that she probably does not know she's doing that. It isn't a deliberate decision.

[Personal note: I grow weary and angry at myself for constantly saying "Native people were not primitive." But, that false idea is so well taught in America that it needs to be said again and again and again.]

Presenting Indians as primitive and uncivilized savages lets Rockwell (she's not the only person who does this. Most writers do it.) portray the Europeans as superior to the indigenous peoples, which ultimately works to say that Europeans were right to take Native lands as their own. I said as much when I critiqued Rockwell's book about Thanksgiving. She responded, saying that she never thought that, and that I was twisting her words. You could say that I am "reading between the lines."

Some might say I'm reading too much into what Rockwell says in that opening paragraph. Again, it isn't an isolated case. Most people who write about that period omit or inaccurately portray American Indians.  I think it is wrong to do so. What do you think?

Update, March 9, 6:30 AM: --- In a comment (see comments section), K pointed out that there are still hundreds of Native Nations and said my sentence suggests there are no longer any Native Nations. Regular readers of this site, and, readers with knowledge about American Indians know that there are, in the present day, hundreds of tribes.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Anne Rockwell's BIG GEORGE: HOW A SHY BOY BECAME PRESIDENT WASHINGTON

Several years ago, Anne Rockwell wrote a book called Thanksgiving Day. Reading it as a Native mother and scholar in American Indian Studies, Thanksgiving Day book is a mess. Rockwell seems not to know that a lot of American Indian people call that day "Thankstaking" or "A day of mourning." In that book, one of her characters, playing the part of a Pilgrim, says (bold is mine):
Michiko was thankful that she and all the other Pilgrims were greeted kindly by the Wampanoag people, who shared the land with them.

Last year, that word "shared" appeared in her picture book biography, Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington (published in 2008 by Harcourt). On the opening page, she writes (bold is mine):

Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America.

In the one called Virginia, a tall boy loved to get on his horse and gallop through the woods alone. He wasn't afraid of bears, or wolves, or the native hunters with bows and arrows who shared those woods.

Sharing is a big part of what we teach children in early childhood classrooms. Hence, the sharing aspect in both of these books work well in those settings.  Course, in those settings we're talking about a toy, or a book, or a special chair. Rockwell is talking about something else completely. The land and woods she's referring to are not the same thing as a toy, or a book, or a special chair.

Note that in the Thanksgiving Day excerpt above, Rockwell says the Pilgrims were greeted "kindly" by the Wampanoag people. In text and illustration of the book, it looks like the Pilgrims and Wampanoags were great friends! Course, by then, the historical record shows, the Wampanoags were familiar with the ways of the Europeans.

In Big George, Rockwell tells her readers that the woods are dangerous... The young George has to be mindful of bears, wolves, and Native hunters with bows and arrows.  Putting Indians-to-be-feared in the same sentence as animals-to-be-feared is a common thing for writers to do. It is, however, a problem, because it equates Indian people with animals. Laura Ingalls Wilder did it, too, in Little House on the Prairie way back in 1935, but Rockwell repeats that error 74 years later. When will that stop?

Let's look at the sentence again...

He wasn't afraid of [...] the native hunters with bows and arrows who shared those woods.

Doesn't make sense, does it? Why should he be afraid of Indians who share the woods with George?

Please see Part 2 of my analysis of Big George.