I was well into my research by that time (study of representation of Native Americans in children's books). Given UIUC's “Chief Illiniwek,” Liz learned early on about racism, representation, and stereotyping.
By then, I was already collaborating with Beverly Slapin at Oyate. I told her about Liz’s experience reading Caddie Woodlawn. She invited Liz to dictate her experience for inclusion in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Titled “Liz’s Story” here is a portion of what eight-year-old Liz said:
"And so we were reading it and when we got to the second chapter, it said, I'm not sure exactly what it said, that the Native Americans were sneaking around like dogs, and they picked up Caddie Woodlawn by her hair, and they were acting like dogs sniffing a bone. In another part it said that the Native Americans were massacring, murdering, and scalping the pioneers and made belts out of their hair and skin. They made the pioneers seem like angels and the Native Americans like inhuman monsters. I felt hurt inside, my eyes were watering, and I felt like I wanted to cry. But then I thought, there's something I can do about this."
Liz goes on to talk about how, the next day, she went to her teacher and the group to tell them how she felt about the book, and that she wanted them to stop reading it. Due to the teacher's social justice approach to teaching, Liz's group had great empathy and agreed to choose a different book.
Liz's best friend at the time was also in the group, and she said she didn't want them to pick a book that made white people look bad. In the end, I bought and donated 10 copies of Erdrich's Birchbark House. That is what they read instead. Liz went on to write a short play of one scene in the book, which her group later performed for their classmates.
This episode illustrates some of what good teachers must contend with in
The teacher chose this book because they were studying historical fiction, and she wanted them to read a story set in or near the midwest. She was using ‘best practice’ in that regard.
She chose that book because there were multiple copies of it available at the school.
She knew it contained derogatory content about American Indians, but, she thought it would give the students the opportunity to deconstruct stereotypical images, applying their critical thinking skills to issues of representation, etc.
As Liz’s experience documents, it didn’t work.
Back then, I called my friends and colleagues in children’s literature, asking them for ideas on what to do. One expressed disgust that an old, outdated book was still being used in the classroom. She suggested the teacher use the book, but NOT as a work of literature. Here’s her rationale:
If a book is well-written, readers will be drawn into it, identifying with characters, setting, story, etc. as they read it, cover to cover. It might be difficult, given that growing attachment to the book, to distance themselves enough to be able to critically discuss the negative representations of American Indians. Analyzing such representations is important, and using children’s books to do it is possible, but not if the book is read, first, as literature. Here’s a rough outline of what a teacher might do:
- Assign specific chapters to different groups of children.
- Ask each group to focus on passages about American Indians in their specific chapter. What words are used to describe them? What tone is conveyed?
- Repeat this exercise for the non-Native characters.
- Compare and contrast the two sets of data.
- Engage the children in conversations about differences in these representations.
- Talk about the period when the book was written.
- Talk about the period itself, and how people thought about American Indians at that time.
If any of you (readers of this blog) have done something like this, please write to me. I’d like to hear how it works in practice.