Wednesday, May 12, 2021

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! Charles Albert Bender: National Hall of Fame Pitcher

 


 Charles Albert Bender: National Hall of Fame Pitcher 
Written by Kade Ferris (Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Canadian Metis descent)
Illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinabe)
Published in 2020
Publisher: Minnesota Humanities Center
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Status: Highly Recommended

Biographies of Native sports figures have been few and far between, in my experience. Jim Thorpe and Tom Longboat are two that immediately come to mind. So it feels great to be able to recommend Kade Ferris' middle grade book about the Ojibwe man who invented a special pitch called the slider. 

Charles Albert Bender: National Hall of Fame Pitcher is part of the new series, Minnesota Native American Lives, edited by Gwen Nell Westerman and Heid E. Erdrich. AICL has already reviewed two others, about Peggy Flanagan and Ella Cara Deloria

Charles Bender was born near Brainerd, MN, in 1884. His mother Mary was an Ojibwe woman who cooked for a lumber company, and his father Albertus was a white (German American) lumberjack. After the trees were gone and the lumber company moved on, the family farmed on the White Earth reservation. One of the tasks that fell to Charles was picking up rocks in the field and throwing them out of the way of the plow. After a while, his aim was very good and his throwing arm was powerful. He credited this experience with the foundation of his success as a pitcher.

Charles and some of his siblings attended a boarding school in Pennsylvania for several years. He enjoyed his academic subjects there. When he was finally able to go home, he found living with his family intolerable. The crowded conditions and his father's brutality made him eager to leave again, this time for Carlisle Indian Industrial School. If you've read about Jim Thorpe's life and career, you'll remember that athletics were very important at Carlisle. Charles' talent for pitching caught the attention of Carlisle coach Glenn "Pop" Warner, and Warner eventually persuaded him to join the baseball team. 

Reading both the bio of Ella Cara Deloria and this book may have you pondering life trajectories. Ella Deloria was a multi-talented person who turned to academics amid ambient racism and sexism. Charles Bender, biographer Ferris tells us, also had multiple strengths. A very good student, he was drawn into athletics as a young man, and that world is where he spent much of his adulthood. Like Jim Thorpe, Charles excelled at several sports. He came to love golf and was so good at trapshooting that, in his day, he was nearly as famous for his marksmanship as for his pitching.

After graduating from Carlisle, Charles set aside an opportunity to continue his studies, and went to pitch for a semi-pro team in Harrisburg, PA. A scout for the Philadelphia Athletics noticed Charles' exceptional pitching during an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs, and told the now-legendary Athletics' manager, Connie Mack, about him. Ferris centers the high and low points of Charles' time in major league baseball, like any biographer writing about a sports figure. For example, he notes that Charles' pitching for the Athletics in the 1911 World Series was hailed as "one of the most impressive feats in baseball" -- "striking out twenty batters in twenty-six innings and only allowing one earned run average in the three games he pitched." The reader can relish hard-won victories along with Charles and his teammates, and feels the sting of set-backs and defeats. The book includes a table of stats for Charles Bender's major league career. 

But Ferris also does not avoid the fact that, like many athletes who were not white, Charles endured racist micro-aggressions and even blatant aggression. There were the seemingly inevitable war whoops from "fans", being nicknamed "Chief" in the press against his firm objections, and sometimes worse. In 1907, he was even refused service and physically thrown out of an evidently whites-only soda shop in Washington DC when he ordered a soft drink. Ferris speculates that Charles did not let these situations "get him down," and he certainly did not let them define him.

The triumphs and tribulations of being an Ojibwe athlete and person in the world are likely to stand out for readers. I enjoyed the ways the author presents what major league baseball was like during its early years -- quite a contrast to today! I can't speak for other readers who are sports fans, but I was interested Charles Bender's life outside of his athletic career. The book mentions his oil paintings, gardening, and love of the natural world, but not (I had to look this up) the fact that he was married for about 50 years to the same woman. I don't see this as a flaw in the book so much as an indicator that this bio leaves the reader wanting to know more, and that's a good thing.

As with the other books in the Minnesota Native American Lives series, Tashia Hart's illustrations augment the text, sometimes poignantly. See how she signals that Charles was retiring -- hanging up his cleats -- on p. 37. At least one illustration includes a subtle nod to Ojibwe identity -- the floral design around the full-length portrait of Charles Bender in action, on p. 23.  

The book includes the same "Extend Your Learning" pages that are part of the other books in this series -- an excellent resource for educators. I sure hope editors Gwen Nell Westerman and Heid E. Erdrich have more of these middle-grade biographies in the works about influential Indigenous people. You can express the same sentiment by buying these books and/or sharing them with students!







Highly Recommended! I SANG YOU DOWN FROM THE STARS, written by Tasha Spillett-Sumner; illustrated by Michaela Goade


I Sang You Down from the Stars
Written by Tasha Spillett-Sumner (Inninewak (Cree) and Trinidadian)
Illustrated by Michaela Goade (Tlingit, member of the Kiks.ådi Clan)
Published in 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended

****

As I sit here at my computer on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 and think about the books that I reviewed last week, I notice that women and children, and grandchildren are at the center of each one. That continues with I Sang You Down From the Stars. With this book, we add a baby. I've written reviews of books about babies before (Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett's We Sang You Home is one) and am delighted to add this one! 

Spillett-Sumner and Goade's book was published on April 6. Right away, it was on the New York Times Bestseller list. Just look at that cover! Isn't it breathtaking? The words and the art in I Sang You Down from the Stars sparkle with warmth and love. 

Stories about family members working together always resonate with me, especially ones about sewing. These reflect our communities in such beautiful ways. Look at this double-paged spread in I Sang You Down from the Stars. On the left, we see people at a table, cutting fabric. We see a child, showing an elder a finished square. That scene tugs on my heart as this family gets ready to welcome a baby into the family and its community (I took this photo outside in the early morning light):



And when the baby is born, we read: 
Family and friends came from near and far to welcome you. 
One by one, they held you and greeted you.
Those words, too, invoke strong memories full of love! Mama's holding little children so they can cradle the new babies! 

Before you read this book to children, take time to read the notes from the author and illustrator. I'm seeing more space being given to authors and illustrators, where they can speak directly to readers about who they are and what they bring to the book. These notes are important! They add depth and tell you things that infuse and shape your reading of the book. 

When I think about "back matter" (that is the information provided after the story itself) that I've read over the decades that I've been doing this work, I realize that I've talked about it in individual reviews but I haven't written an article about that. Hmm. Maybe it is time for that. 

Get a copy of I Sang You Down from the Stars! When you're at your library, ask for it so that others can find and read it, too. And tell your friends and colleagues about it. 



Monday, May 10, 2021

Thinking Critically About Writing Assignments We Ask Children to Do [and a recommendation for TEACHING CRITICALLY ABOUT LEWIS AND CLARK by Schmitke, Sabzalian, and Edmundson]

When we ask children to think (and write) like someone of a different time period, a different culture, a different geographical location, and a different language, what are we giving them in order to do that? Do we have content that can help them do that with the educational integrity that is necessary? In the case of Sacagawea, we have nothing to go on. She left nothing written. All we have is a lot of imaginings of what she thought, and what she said. 

In January of 2019, a photo of a "Lewis and Clark Expedition Diary Entry" assignment went viral. Written by a fifth grader, it was circulating again recently. Several people sent it to me, asking what I thought of it. In the assignment, students are asked to imagine being someone on the expedition. In this case, the fifth grade child imagined herself as Sacagawea. Here's what she wrote on her worksheet:
Dear Diary,

I am so mad! I took 3 annoying men who were very stinky to find the best rout to the Pacific Ocean, found horses, food, and peace so tribes wouldn't attack us! I did that whole journey, but the thing is I did most of the work, not Lewis, or Clark, or my husband! It should have been called the Sacagawea expedition!! I DID THIS ALL WITH A BABY ON MY BACK YET THE MEN DID MORE COMPLAINING!! And I got zero $! Like come on! I'm never doing that again.
My guess is that all of you reading #31DaysIBPOC are aware that men are paid more than women, and that women get little credit for their accomplishments. You've probably taught your students about gender inequities. Clearly, the fifth grader who composed the "Dear Diary" entry had learned about the difference in how men and women are treated. With that in mind, the 5th grader's answer sounds great. That's why it went viral. People think it is clever.

But if we pause to think critically, do you think Sacagawea would have written something like that? Before, during, and after her lifetime, people of Native Nations were and are fighting to protect our homes, gardens, families, and homelands from outsiders who wanted/want Native lands and resources. 

Representations--or, rather, misrepresentations--of Sacagawea are on my mind of late because An-Lon Chen (a parent) wrote to me about Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin's biography of her: Who Was Sacagawea. Chen had been reading it to her child and found herself wondering about its accuracy. We had an email conversation that evolved into a review essay that AICL published on April 23. I'm linking to it here and I want teachers to click through and read her review, especially the section she titled "Erasure." There, she writes about the 1905 Portland World's Fair, and how the National Woman Suffrage Association unveiled the first statue of Sacagawea. 

My point in bringing up Chen's essay? Because I'm thrilled by her critical stance! I want more parents to ask questions. I want educators to welcome their questions, and when necessary, I want us to change what we're doing in the classrooms or spaces where we teach. 

I know--thinking critically is in the news a lot as some parent and teachers object to anti-racist instruction. Changing what we do is hard and sometimes scary, but it is important. We, at American Indians in Children's Literature, are providing book reviews that we hope are helpful to you as you revisit the books you have or teach in your classrooms. We also created Tips for Teachers: Developing Instructional Materials about American Indians. We're here to help and the #31DaysIBPOC series (this is its third year) can help, too. 

On my side table is a copy of Alison Schmitke, Leilani Sabzalian, and Jeff Edmundson's book, Teaching Critically About Lewis and Clark: Challenging Dominant Narratives in K-12 Curriculum. Published this year by Teachers College Press, I highly recommend it! It will help teachers revise what they've been doing when they teach about Lewis and Clark. 



As I bring this post to a close, a warm ku'daa (thank you, in Tewa) to Tricia Ebarvia and Kim Parker for launching #31DaysIBPOC in 2019 and inviting me to participate.  
 

****



This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. 

Please click here to read the previous blog post by Katie Huang (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series). 

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Highly Recommended: MII MAANDA EZHI-GKENDMAANH / THIS IS HOW I KNOW, written by Brittany Luby; illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley [and a note about translators]


Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh
This is How I Know
Written by Brittany Luby (Anishinaabe descent)
Illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley (Ojibwe, member 
of Wasauksing First Nation)
Translated by Alvin Ted Corbiere and Alan Corbiere (Anishinaabe 
from M'Chigeeng First Nation)
Published in 2021
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Status: Highly Recommended
Reviewer: Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh)

****

Hidden in the dense branches of the spruce tree in my back yard, a mother cardinal sits on a nest. We've peeked in on her and the hatchlings a couple of times, but then I come inside and look online for videos of cardinal nests. Watching videos rather than the nest in our yard gives this cardinal family the safety that my presence must surely interrupt. From afar, I watch as the male and female cardinals fly here and there, gathering food that they then take to the nest. 

I think that a combination of spring flowers, a growing vaccinated population, and the life in that tree are impacting the warmth I feel as I read Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh (This is How I Know). 

"This is how I know" is a refrain that structures Luby and Pawis-Steckley's picture book. On the title page we see the full title, in Anishinaabemowin, and then in English. That ordering of language is on the cover, too, and is what you'll see on every page. 

I want you to notice, on the title page, the names of the translators: Alvin Ted Corbiere, and Alan Corbiere. They are a father and son from M'Chigeeng First Nation. For this and every book, I'd like to see the names of translator's on the cover. Individuals who speak and write an Indigenous language are--for many--more significant than the story a book tells. I don't mean to cast a shadow on this book. I like it very much, as the "Highly Recommended" tag demonstrates. I'm speaking more to book designers who make decisions about what goes where, in books they publish.


During the pandemic, many tribal nations made sure that those who speak their language were among the first to receive Covid vaccines. Though the US and Canadian governments tried very hard to eradicate us in every way, we resisted--and we resist, now. Across tribal nations, language programs are thriving because of people like the Corbiere's who translated this book. So--editors/designers--I hope you'll revisit your treatment of translators. 

Now, back to the book! The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, Wisconsin-Madison selected it for their Book of the Week on April 26. 

It begins with these words near the bottom of a page, surrounded by white space:
Aaniish ezhi-gkendmaanh niibing?
How do I know summer is here?
Facing those words is a large illustration of blueberries. Over the next pages, we learn about the things the child and their grandparent see that tell them summer is here. Gorgeously illustrated pages follow. We see Loon, Luna Moth, Bumblebee, Screech Owl, and a stunning sunset with texture and depth. Beneath that sunset, we read:
Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh niibing.
This is how I know summer. 
Turning the page, we're again in a white space as we begin a new section where the child and their grandmother will see the things of fall. And again, for winter, and then for spring. On those pages for spring, there's a seagull and a robin, sitting on the eggs in their nests. 

As I began this review, I recognized the illustrator's name. Two days ago when I wrote about Angeline Boulley's Firekeeper's Daughter, I talked a bit about Sharice Davids and her book, Sharice's Big Voice, due out soon. I mentioned the illustrator for her book. It is the same person who did the illustration's for Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This is How I Know. Looking at their website, I see outstanding work that has a lot more detail than I see in this book and wonder about the decisions that went into these. Take a look at his site! 

Order a copy of Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This is How I Know for your classroom and library, and ask for it at your local bookstore and public library. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Highly Recommended: JOSIE DANCES, written by Denise Lajimodiere; illustrated by Angela Erdrich



Josie Dances 
written by Denise Lajimodiere (Citizen, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe)
illustrated by Dr. Angela Erdrich (Citizen, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe)
Published in 2021
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
Status: Highly Recommended
Reviewer: Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh)

****

I'll just say it: I love Josie Dances. That sense of love that readers experience with some books, is where I'll start. Why, I wonder, does this book give me that feeling? 

As I turn the pages to try to figure that out, I think it is the same things that I noted yesterday (May 3) in my review of Angeline Boulley's Firekeeper's Daughter. Those things: community, and women. Specifically, Native community, and Native women. To be precise: Ojibwe community, and Ojibwe women! 

Here's the description of Josie Dances from the publisher: 

Josie dreams of dancing at next summer’s powwow. But first she needs many special things: a dress, a shawl, a cape, leggings, moccasins, and, perhaps most important of all, her spirit name. To gather all these essential pieces, she calls on her mom, her aunty, her kookum, and Grandma Greatwalker. They have the skills to prepare Josie for her powwow debut.

As the months go by, Josie practices her dance steps while Mom stitches, Aunty and Kookum bead, and Grandma Greatwalker dreams Josie’s spirit name. Josie is nervous about her performance in the arena and about all the pieces falling into place, but she knows her family is there to support her.

The powwow circle is a welcoming space, and dancers and spectators alike celebrate Josie’s first dance. When she receives her name, she knows it’s just right. Wrapped in the love of her community, Josie dances to honor her ancestors.

In this Ojibwe girl’s coming-of-age story, Denise Lajimodiere highlights her own daughter’s experience at powwow. Elegant artwork by Angela Erdrich features not only Josie and her family but also the animals and seasons and heartbeat of Aki, Mother Earth, and the traditions that link Josie to generations past and yet to come.

As I sit here and read through the book again, I pause at what is (at the moment) my favorite page:


I carry memories of my grandmother sewing traditional clothes for us to wear for our dances at Nambé. She had an old sewing machine that was powered by her feet pushing a large pedal that made her machine work. Fascinated with the process, I asked her if I could try it. It isn't a clear memory but it seems she told me something like "this is not like your mom's sewing machine." She was right about that. My mom's sewing machine looked like the one in Josie Dances. She, too, sewed our traditional and everyday clothes. I sew them, too. And so does my daughter. She's made traditional dresses for her cousin's little girls. 

Josie and her family spend a year getting ready for her to dance. With each page turn, readers move through the seasons with them. Early in the book, we see the moccasins that Josie will wear--but without beads. On the page with the sewing machine, it is winter and we see the moccasins partially beaded. Turning the page we see Grandmother Greatwalker asleep (and covered with a beautiful quilt!), dreaming. Josie's name will come to her, in a dream. The next page shows us Josie and her mother picking spring berries. Then... it is time for the powwow and we shift from a seasonal framework to one that takes place over a day and night. First, we see people in t-shirts and shorts at the site where the powwow will be. Josie is wondering if she'll be dancing, after all. We see her in a night scene, lying down in a bedroll in her tent. Did all her clothing get finished? Did Grandmother Greatwalker dream of her name? She wakes the next day with messy hair. Glancing to the trees nearby, she sees an eagle. The answer to all her questions is yes, and it is conveyed quietly on this page:




----

With each year, I see more and more children's books with Native words in them. That's part of why I'm highly recommending Josie Dances. When Josie asks her mom to help her, her mom replies "Eya, nindaanis!" The glossary tells us that means "Yes, my daughter!" We have that same sentence structure several times. Josie asks her aunty if she will bead her cape; her aunty replies "Eya, ikwezens!" Josie asks her kookum (grandmother) if she'll make her moccasins and leggings, and she replies "Eya, noozhishenh!" And she asks a tribal elder (Grandmother Greatwalker) about her name, and hears "Eya, abinoojinh!" Lajimodiere's writing teaches us all a few Ojibwe words--and that's a terrific part of what we are offered in this picture book. 

I think what I'm trying to get at is this: the story given to us by Denise Lajimodiere and Angela Erdrich -- both, citizens of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe -- is so real, and so full of Native life and love. 

Denise Lajimodiere


Angela Erdrich

Josie Dances is published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. They've done several books that I highly recommend, including Marcie Rendon's Powwow Summer, Cheryl Minnema's Hungry Johnny, Thomas Peacock's The Forever Sky, Art Coulson's The Creator's Game, and Brenda Child's Bowwow Powwow. If you don't have those yet, get them when you order copies of Josie Dances. 






Monday, May 03, 2021

Highly Recommended! FIREKEEPER'S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley




Firekeeper's Daughter
Written by Angeline Boulley (Enrolled member of the 
Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians)
Cover art by Moses Lunham (Ojibway)
Published in 2021
Publisher: Henry Holt (Macmillan)
Review Status: Highly Recommended
Reviewer: Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh)

****

For months, now, people have been talking about Angeline Boulley's debut, Firekeeper's Daughter. When the cover art by Moses Lunham (Ojibway) was released, people talked about that. When Netflix announced it would be made into a film by the Obama's production company, Higher Ground Productions, there was a growing chorus of voices. And then there was even more, when it appeared on the New York times bestseller list! 

It's popularity is evident in the wait time at my local library. If I wanted to get an audio copy, I'd have one in 290 days; if I wanted the eBook I'd get it in 276 days. Of course, I had a personal e-copy, so won't be adding my name to the request list at the library.

I was elated to see the review from Publishers Weekly. It used the words "tribally specific." I think that is another "first" for Native writers. We've seen a few "firsts" recently. One is Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade's We Are Water Protectors winning the Caldecott Medal, and another is seeing their book and a new one--I Sang You Down from the Stars by Tasha Spillett-Sumner, illustrated by Michaela Goade--on the best selling picture book list at the New York Times, at the same time! Boulley's book was over on the young adult list!



When I read the phrase "half brother" in a review from one of the major review journals, I paused. Half brother? I didn't remember seeing that phrase. Was it in the book? The answer is no. Boulley did not use that phrase to describe Daunis's brother. He was, simply, her brother. Levi and Daunis have different mothers but for Boulley, that doesn't matter. I think it hints at the difference between a white point of view and a Native one, about family and the words used to describe family members.  

I'm thrilled that people like Boulley's novel. What it is doing in the world is important for everyone. People who aren't Ojibwe are getting an insider's perspective on Ojibwe life and people; Ojibwe readers are getting something they recognize. Take a listen to Red Hoop Talk, episode 48. When it starts, they bring up a map that shows Sugar Island, which figures prominently in Firekeeper's Daughter. 


Listening, I especially like that Boulley characterizes her book as a love letter to Anishinabe girls. When Boulley and Colleen Medicine (one of the hosts on the show; she's Ojibwe) talk about the ferry to Sugar Island and how it feels to be on Sugar Island, I think of going into, and being at similar places at Nambé--how liberating they are to us, as Native people of those places. Boulley talking about the audio makes me want to go right out and order it! 

Photo credit: Amber Boulley


She talked, too, about the team at Macmillan that works with her, and that found Moses Lunham. In August of 2020, Anishinabek News did an article about him doing the cover. Here's a paragraph:
Since the Woodland style is a story-telling art form, Lunham says it is well-suited to book covers. The images on the cover originate from the fire and the smoke that rises from it, he explains. With the protagonist’s last name being Firekeeper, it made perfect sense to start with a Sacred Fire, Lunham says.  From out of smoke come the bear, Daunis’ clan dodem, and the raven, the message-bearer who plays an important role in leading her “in the right direction,” the artist adds. The two animals “morph” into the butterfly, the main image and a symbol Lunham wanted to include as representing the young Daunis leaving childhood and emerging into adult life.
As I follow reactions to the book, I see that Native people talk about Native community in Firekeeper's Daughter. They see things that resonate with them. In particular, Native readers are talking about the women, especially the elders, in the book. I sure did! Reading the words of these Ojibwe women made me laugh and wince, too, as I heard echos of home (Nambé). Like the name Granny June gives to her dog! I laughed really hard at that part. And the elders using technology? That was awesome and made me think of my mom with her iPad!  

Though the novel is Ojibwe from start to finish, there are many places at which I nodded because they are so familiar. HUD houses. And the passages about tribal politics! I like that a lot. I hope non-Native readers hit a pause button when they read about tribal politics in Daunis's community, and that they learn about tribal governments. Native governments are rarely taught in schools, but Native kids know about them and non-Native kids should, too! Most tribal nations have websites with links to their page about their government. Here's the one for Boulley's tribe: Government (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians

I like the ways that Boulley raises stereotypical thinking and then immediately bats them down. I won't elaborate. See for yourself.

I'll close with a link to another terrific moment. As far as I am able to determine, the National Congress of American Indians has not had an event that featured a children's or adult book, but they did it with Firekeeper's Daughter. Moreover, it included a spectacular team of Native women:



That image is a screen cap from Louise Erdrich's (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians) public Facebook page. In the foreground (on the laptop) is Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and in the background is Erdrich. The NCAI event included Haaland, Erdrich, NCAI President Fawn Sharp (Quinault), and Representative Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk). Here's a screen capture from the 13:40 mark of the event, when Davids talked about reading Boulley's book:



In his introduction, Representative Dan Kildee noted that Davids has a children's book in the works, too! Illustrated by Joshua M. Pawis-Steckley (Ojibwe) is due out on June 1, so keep an eye out for it and register for the launch:





Make time to watch the entire NCAI event. One of the topics Boulley and Erdrich discussed is about DNA, DNA testing, and enrollment. Erdrich told Boulley she was glad to see that part of the book. I wonder how that part is landing with people who think they're Native, and then provide their DNA to a company, thinking that is all it takes to be able to say they're Native?   



Watch the video. Spend some time on Angeline Boulley's website. And of course, get a copy of the book.Visit your library and ask them for it. 

One last note:  In her author's note, when Boulley names a Native person, she includes their tribal nation. This book is tribally specific, through and through. 


 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Guest Review: An-Lon Chen's review of WHO WAS SACAGAWEA? by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin

Note from Debbie: In February of 2021, I received an email from a parent who had questions about a scene in Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin’s biography of Sacagawea. That parent is An-Lon Chen. We began an email conversation. What she wrote struck me as the sort of activity that I want readers of AICL to see. First is the questioning, and then, the research, and all though that research process, collisions with the historical record, the master narrative, and what children learn. An-Lon's essay demonstrates the work some parents do when they read a children’s book to their child. I wish more parents would write about the work they do, and share that work. Publishers do pay attention to critical examinations of the books they publish. Writers do, too (for examples, see Revised and Withdrawn).

Note on April 27, 2021: You can follow An-Lon Chen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/anlonchen

**** 

An-Lon Chen's Review of Who Was Sacagawea?


I didn’t set out to write a book review when I contacted Dr. Reese about a scene in chapter 4 where Sacagawea learns that her brother, Cameahwait, is going to break a promise he had made to Meriwether Lewis. I was looking for help in finding the source material for that scene in Who Was Sacagawea? by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin. The book was published in 2002, but is still in print today from Penguin Random House. My family loves the Who Was? biography series and this was the first time I felt the need to do any fact-checking.



An old college friend eventually helped me locate the source material in Lewis and Clark’s expedition journals. Later in this review, I will post it side-by-side with its retelling in the children’s book. It’s an eye-opening look at how much any given author’s interpretation of Sacagawea’s inner thoughts and feelings is a reflection of that author’s own beliefs and their own racial stereotypes, however well-intentioned. (Readers with time constraints can jump directly to the scene in question the Fiction? Or Deceptions? section of this review, though I feel that its full significance is best appreciated in context.)


In this review, I will shine a light on that scene, a racist illustration, and a dishonest and evasive portrayal of United States government actions in the wake of the Lewis and Clark expedition. However, the problem with Sacagawea is much bigger than one particular book. Who Was Sacagawea? is, in all likelihood, one of the better Sacagawea books out there. The authors clearly cared about their subject matter and succeeded in telling a highly engaging story about a courageous heroine. Unfortunately, the story itself has deeper problems than they seem to have realized.


I was, to be honest, caught by surprise. I am not Native American and don’t have any particular insight into, or knowledge about, Sacagawea’s story. I am, however, a Chinese-American mother of a biracial child, and I am painfully aware of how deeply racist first impressions can linger. I was disturbed enough after reading Who Was Sacagawea? aloud to my five-year old daughter that I felt morally obligated to research and write this review.

Introduction

My daughter first learned about Sacagawea from a board book that was gifted to us called A is for Awesome by Eva Chen. That board book is not the subject of this review, but I include the illustration because it visually demonstrates two important aspects of how Sacagawea's story is told.



First and foremost, all we know about Sacagawea is what white men have written about her, in the third person. We have no record of her own internal thoughts and feelings. In A is for Awesome, Sacagawea is one of the few women in the book whose page doesn’t include an upbeat, inspirational speech balloon with a quote from her (like the one shown for Ginsburg). From a few scraps in Lewis and Clark’s voluminous journals, Sacagawea’s life has been constructed, re-constructed, appropriated, and re-appropriated by white suffragists, historians, schoolteachers, writers, and politicians. We, the non-Native American audience, remain fascinated by Sacagawea because her trek across the western United States with a baby on her back makes for such a good story.


The second aspect of her life story that A is for Awesome shows us is Sacagawea’s happy smile. A smile seems like an inconsequential thing to point out, especially in light of the more obvious question - where’s her baby? But the smile is important because Sacagawea has been used by two centuries’ worth of white authors to justify white expansionism. If Sacagawea can smile about the Lewis and Clark expedition and its aftermath, then we, too, are given permission to smile.


In an email I received from Dr. Reese, she says that she doesn’t know of a decolonized children’s biography of Sacagawea. In her own words from that email:


I'd promote that (non-existent) book so much because teachers all across the country could use it to teach kids how to analyze false narratives. People who don't want the narrative disrupted won't like it, but those who do... like me, well, we'd love it.


I’m going to pause here for a confession. Much as I want this non-existent biography to exist, I too have a strong emotional response to the story as we know it. In reading through the original Lewis and Clark journals, I too am drawn by Sacagawea’s bravery and resourcefulness and resilience. I too hear the siren song that inspired her countless white biographers, who wanted to bring her back to life and give her a voice. For these reasons, I do empathize with them. Her story is not a blank slate: from the journals, we glimpse just enough of her life to desperately want to know the rest. Without any existing window into her thoughts and feelings, we invent our own motivations for her actions. We don’t necessarily set out to write a revisionist history, but we do so simply because what we wrongly perceive as a blank slate is so frustrating and so tempting.


An honest biography would refrain from reconstructing what know from the journal fragments. It would also reframe the larger story in the context of Sacagawea’s own people rather than that of the white expedition. Finally, it would tell the story of her appropriation, which is fascinating and sad in its own right.


The white suffragists who rediscovered Sacagawea had a narrative of their own to disrupt: that history is made exclusively by men. Unfortunately, these women introduced their own explicitly colonialist message. Eva Emery Dye, the novelist who popularized Sacagawea to a white audience ninety years after her death, patriotically credited Sacagawea with “unlocking the gates of the mountains, and giving up the key to her country... giving over its trade and resources to the whites, opening the way to a higher civilization.” [1] [2]


This talk of giving the country over to the whites resonates with a sizable percentage of Americans today. That is the result of misrepresentations of her life story and this country's story. I think it is important that we all take a harder look at Sacagawea’s portrayal in children’s books, and recognize that schoolchildren are receiving that same misrepresentation to this very day. I don’t believe it’s possible to address any of the errors, omissions, and fabrications in Who Was Sacagawea? without seeing how neatly they fit together in support of the colonialist, expansionist narrative first put forth by turn-of-the-century white suffragists. Again, I don’t believe the children’s book authors explicitly intended to push this particular agenda. For too many of us, it is hard to see the bias in the materials we inherit.

Revisionist History

Framing the Story

Who Was Sacagawea? opens with these words (p. 2):


In the year 2000, the United States issued a new dollar coin. Its “heads” side shows an American-Indian woman. She is carrying her baby.


Who is this young woman? Her name was Sacagawea (Sa KA ga WE a). Two hundred years ago, she went with the Lewis and Clark expedition. The explorers traveled across the American Northwest. When the explorers were hungry, she found food. When they met Indians along the way, she acted as a translator. Thanks to Sacagawea’s help, the expedition was a success.


The Lewis and Clark expedition changed American history. It helped the United States settle a huge region. This area included what became the states of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.


This is the standard framing for Sacagawea’s adventures. Schoolchildren learn at an early age that the Lewis and Clark expedition enabled white settlement in the Northwest United States, and that the expedition would have failed at multiple junctures if not for Sacagawea. This framing sets her up as the person who scored the game-winning touchdown for the other team.


The standard framing also sets up a false timeline and false sense of historical scale. Readers are given the impression that civilization began in Idaho, Washington and Oregon only after they were organized into the states we know today. In reality, tribes on the Columbia River Plateau had been trading with tribes on the Pacific coast by canoe for thousands of years, and trading with tribes across the Rocky Mountains by horseback for hundreds of years. Although the thirty-three members of the Lewis and Clark expedition were the first white people to make face-to-face contact with these inland tribes, many of them already possessed white trade goods and knowledge of white people obtained through their intertribal trade network [3]. From their perspective at the time, the Lewis and Clark expedition was no different from any of the French, British, and Spanish expeditions that had come and gone before [4].


Below, I’m going to quote every passage in Who Was Sacagawea? that addresses the white settlement of Native lands. This is a comprehensive recitation, down to the last sentence fragment. This is the revisionist American history lesson I delivered to my daughter when I read the book aloud to her. Unteaching it is easier said than done. She trusts the written word.

Resettlement to Reservations

The only information about Indigenous peoples’ forced resettlement to reservations is ignominiously buried in a two-page encyclopedic-like sidebar about buffalo, which I will reproduce here in its entirety (pp. 20-11):


Buffalo Hunting


The American bison is also called the American buffalo. A large male bison is about the size of a small minivan. At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, more than 50,000,000 bison roamed the Great Plains. The Shoshone and the other Plains Indians depended on them for food, warm clothing, and shelter. Their tipis were made from buffalo hides.


Whites begin to settle on the Great Plains shortly after the expedition. The United States government tried to force the Indian tribes to live on the reservations - smaller pieces of land.


In the late 1800s, white buffalo hunters killed all but 550 American bison. Having lost their food and shelter, the Indians moved to the reservations.


During the mid-1900s, some bison were returned to the prairies. Today, 150,000 bison live on ranches and in national parks in the United States and Canada.


The passage creates the false impression that the “Indians” (it’s unclear which) voluntarily moved to the reservations. It gives no sense of the geographical size and scope of the lost homelands in comparison with the ever-shrinking, often fatally distant reservations. And it also creates a more subtle and insidious false sense of scale by enumerating the buffalo’s huge population numbers in detail while lumping together all the “Indians” into one indistinct mass. Because the terms “Indians” and “Plains Indians” are used so generically, it’s impossible to figure out which nations and tribes either term refers to. 


Sacagawea’s Lemhi Shoshone, who lived in the Rocky Mountains on the other side of the Continental Divide and only hunted buffalo seasonally, are lumped in with the Plains Indians. I honestly can’t tell whether the “Indians'' who “moved to the reservations” when there were only 550 bison left, are just the Plains Indians (of which only the Mandan and the Hidatsa are even mentioned in the book), or all the Indian nations and tribes on the entire continent who were forcibly removed to reservations in the name of white settlement.


Though the Lemhi Shoshone and Nez Perce Indians of the Pacific Northwest are lauded in the book for having helped the Lewis and Clark expedition, this confusing sidebar about buffalo and Plains Indians is the closest the book comes to mentioning the wars, broken treaties, depletion of natural resources, incursion of white settlers, and political pressures that forced them onto reservations within less than a century. Let me say that again: that is the only place in the book where readers get even a hint of honest information about what Americans and the US government did to Indian people.

Exploration and Discovery

In Who Was Sacajawea? there are too many references to themes of exploration and discovery to list them all. This is the only one that acknowledges that the land originally belonged to the Indians (p. 21):


The voyagers would do more than visit the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. They would also explore what is now Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Great Britain also had its eye on this territory. Jefferson wanted American explorers to get there first. That would strengthen U.S. claims to the region. Nobody stopped to think that the land already belonged to the Indians.


Ultimately, the exploration and discovery narrative becomes the driving force. We see the virgin landscape unfold through explorer's eyes, from the expedition’s early days in St. Louis to the beached whale at the Pacific ocean.


The discovery narrative is so powerful and compelling, it inevitably overpowers the fact presented on page 21 that the Indians were there first. Devoid of context, it is like a carcinogen warning on the side of a package. The reader sees it and forgets about it. Without having been introduced to the diverse and distinct Indigenous peoples of the “unexplored” Columbia River plateau, and without having learned anything about their relationship with the land or the miles and the millennia that it spans, it’s easy for the reader to promptly dismiss the fact that the land already belonged to the Indians.

Commemoration

At the very end of the journey, we learn (p. 95):


The Lewis and Clark expedition reached St. Louis in late September. Cheering crowds greeted the men. They were heroes. They had explored vast and distant lands. Lewis and Clark had paved the way for America's settlement of the west.


The expedition is credited with enabling the invasion and occupation of Native homelands, and the book celebrates along with the cheering crowds. In the final chapter, “Honoring Sacagawea,” we learn less about the modern-day fate of her people than we did earlier when we read that today, there are over 150,000 buffalo on ranches and in national parks (p. 102):


During the 1800s, Indians and whites fought many wars. White people did not want to honor any Native Americans. By 1900, the fighting had ended. The country was getting ready to celebrate the expedition’s 100th anniversary. That was when Americans ‘discovered’ Bird Woman. Suddenly, she became very well-known. Sacagawea has had more landmarks named for her and memorials built in her honor than any other American woman. 


Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming have mountains named for Sacagawea. Washington and North Dakota have lakes named for her.


So how did the fighting end? Who won the wars? Do Indians still exist today? We never find out, as the book immediately segues into a recitation of Sacagawea’s many landmarks and memorials. 


In reality, the fighting ended only about thirty years before the unveiling of Sacagawea’s first major statue at the 1905 Portland World’s Fair. White veterans of the last Northwest Indian wars against the Modoc, Nez Perce, Bannock, and Paiute tribes were present among the crowds [5]. White female suffragists unveiled Sacagawea’s statue, draped it in an American flag, and gave speeches lauding her selfless, patriotic, and vital role in America’s westward expansion [6]. Make no mistake: Sacagawea’s statue was a propaganda piece and a victory celebration.


The irony is evident in the Sacagawea dollar coin released in 2000. Whose “liberty” is the United States government celebrating, and in whose God do we trust? Certainly not Sacagawea’s, or that of her Lemhi Shoshone tribe, or that of any other contemporaneous American Indian nation.



Erasure


At the 1905 Portland World’s Fair, National Woman Suffrage Association President Anna Shaw hailed Sacagawea as a memory of a conveniently vanishing race [7]:

“Your tribe is fast disappearing from the land of your fathers. May we, the daughters of an alien race who slew your people and usurped your country, learn the lessons of calm endurance, of patient persistence and unfaltering courage exemplified in your life…”  

Who Was Sacagawea? propagates the same nostalgic myth of the vanishing Indian by concluding with a recitation of Sacagawea’s many monuments and memorials while failing to mention that all the Indigenous tribes encountered by the reader in the book still exist today. For this review, I did a lot of research and learned a lot.


Sacagawea’s Lemhi Shoshone lived in their relatively isolated homeland valley for two more years after the 1905 Portland World’s Fair. Though they had remained mostly neutral during the Nez Perce, Bannock, and Sheepeater Wars, they were ultimately driven by political and economic pressures to relocate to the Fort Hall Reservation, 200 miles away. Tribal members refer to this exile from their homeland as their own “Trail of Tears” [8]. Though the small number of Lemhi Shoshone who remained in or returned to their homeland have not succeeded at obtaining federal recognition, they remain a distinct society today [9]. The Lemhi Shoshone who relocated to the Fort Hall Reservation are now part of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, a federally recognized sovereign nation with over 5,900 members. 


The Nez Perce tribe that aided the expedition after they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains is a federally recognized tribal nation with over 3,500 citizens. Though the Nez Perce Reservation is located on part of their homeland in north-central Idaho, the Nez Perce who aligned with Chief Joseph during the Nez Perce War of 1877 spent eight long and deadly years in exile on reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma before finally being allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest in 1885. 


The Mandan Indians in North Dakota who helped feed the expedition during the winter of 1804-1805 were ravaged by multiple smallpox epidemics and allied with the Hidatsa and the Arikara in order to survive. Today, they are the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, with 16,770 enrolled members. In 1949, the federal government displaced over 80% of their population in order to build the Garrison Dam. The loss of the river-valley homeland that had been their agricultural livelihood left The Three Tribes devastated economically, socially, and spiritually [10]. In 1985, Congress awarded them $149.5 million in just compensation for the lands underneath the lake created by the dam. This lake is called Lake Sakakawea, so named by the US Army Corps of Engineers who built the dam [11].


There are currently 574 federally recognized tribes and 1.9 million tribally enrolled members in the United States today. This tally doesn’t include the Chinook and Clatsop tribes of the Lower Columbia River that are featured in the book for having traded with the expedition at the very end of their journey. The Chinook Nation, which includes both these tribes, is still fighting for federal recognition. Their struggle is not the focus of this piece, but it’s well worth visiting their own website to learn more. Ironically, because they never signed a ratified treaty or officially ceded homelands, they are now denied COVID relief and other forms of federal aid [12].


All these nations and tribes survived the white occupation of their ancestral homelands. So why were they written out of Who Was Sacagawea? Why do we get a modern-day update on the buffalo and the dollar coin and the namesake lake in North Dakota, but no update on the people themselves? Because in order to justify the discovery and settlement narrative, we need to pretend that the people we displaced no longer exist.


I’m going to shift gears at this point, from the larger historical canvas to the scene in the book that took me down the path that led to this review.

Fiction? Or Deceptions?

We know just enough from Lewis and Clark’s journals to be deeply drawn to Sacagawea as a human being, and we become emotionally invested in giving her a happy ending. I think many children’s biographers paint a false portrait of Sacagawea not for ideological reasons, but because letting her share in the happy ending of the white expedition is the only way to give her a happy ending at all. Rather than using Sacagawea’s story to reflect on hard truths about white settlement of Indigenous homelands, we now use it to assuage our collective guilt.


Most narratives downplay how little agency Sacagawea had in her own life. Sacagawea's husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, was a predatory man who “married" at least five Native American girls, the last when he was 80 and she was 14 years old [13]. According to the Lewis and Clark journals, Sacagawea herself was captured in a raid at age 10 or 11 by the rival Hidatsa tribe (referred to in the book as the Minnetaree) and either sold, traded, or gambled away to Charbonneau when she was 13.


The authors of Who Was Sacagawea? go to great lengths to try and make Sacagawea’s backstory palatable to younger readers. In the first few pages, they insert an awkward paragraph explaining that like all Shoshone girls, she would have been married at age 13 or 14 to an older man within her own Shoshone tribe. My impression is that this is intended to soften the blow of her ensuing capture and forced marriage to Charbonneau.


In Chapter 4, Sacagawea emotionally reunites with her Lemhi Shoshone tribe in present-day Idaho after five years and 600 miles of separation. She learns that her brother Cameahwait is the new chief. He becomes part of the translation chain that allows the Lewis and Clark expedition to trade for horses and guides from the Shoshone in order to cross the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains.


Here, the book’s authors launch into speculation as to why Sacagawea stayed with the white expedition instead of staying with her people, conveniently avoiding the possibility that she may not have had a choice. But even that editorialization isn't enough, because the book also introduces a new, illustrated plot point (pp. 60-61):


Bird Woman must have been tempted to stay with her people. However, she chose to move on with the Corps of Discovery. We can only guess why. Perhaps she felt loyal to the explorers. They had treated her and Pomp kindly. She may never have felt so important before. The chance to visit other Indian tribes and see the ocean must also have been exciting to a young girl.


The explorers were still among the Shoshone when Bird Woman overheard something shocking. Her brother had changed his mind. He was going to break his promise. He was going to keep the horses and take his hungry people to hunt buffalo. Sacagawea told Charbonneau what she had learned. She asked him to tell Captain Lewis. Lewis confronted Cameahwait. The chief was ashamed. He would keep his word after all, he said. Once again, Sacagawea had helped save the expedition.


This is the point where I went on a protracted hunt for the original source material. The passage above felt a little too convenient. Here is a photo of that page:



This scene establishes Sacagawea’s brother as a deceitful, unreliable Indian, plants Sacagawea firmly on her husband's side, and firmly aligns her with the white expedition. The reader can relax and enjoy the rest of the book, believing that Sacagawea chose of her own free will to stay with the good guys.


Is it any wonder that some Native Americans think of Sacagawea as a traitor? Look at the illustration in the book above: Sacagawea is eavesdropping from behind a tree, and she’s about to snitch on her Shoshone brother to her white husband. As I am about to demonstrate, this scene is entirely fictitious. No part of it ever happened. But it appears in this biography. We’re conditioned to believe the words in print without question.


Here is the actual source material, with the only mention of Sacagawea underlined in blue. I will guide you through it, shortly. [14]




“Whilst at dinner we learnt by means of Sacajawea” (page 110) is the only mention of Sacagawea in this entire passage. All we learn from it is that she conveyed some information. There is no indication about how or why she chose to share that information, or that it was secret in any way, or that she had overheard it from behind a tree. All those details provided on page 60 and 61 of Who Was Sacagawea?, in other words, were invented wholesale.


The actual information being conveyed is more difficult to decipher without some context. I will summarize and give the needed background.


At the time of the journal passage, the expedition and Cameahwait’s party are camped some distance away from the Shoshone village in the Bitterroot Mountains. At this point, Lewis and Clark have traded for some horses from Cameahwait, and Cameahwait has indicated willingness to trade more. Lewis and Clark want the entire combined party to travel to the Shoshone village in order to continue bargaining for their needed horses. Cameahwait, however, has just instructed a runner (as conveyed by Sacagawea) to have his people leave the village and meet Lewis and Clark’s party at their current encampment instead. 


From there, they will make their seasonal journey down to the buffalo-hunting grounds on the Great Plains of present-day Montana. All of Lewis’s subsequent pontification refers to the horses he thinks he’s entitled to once they reach the Shoshone village in the mountains, not to any horses that have actually been promised. At the end of page 111 in the journals, Cameahwait agrees to change his plans. In subsequent journal entries, everyone arrives at the village and Lewis bargains for his horses.


Nowhere is there any indication that Cameahwait attempted to steal back horses that he had already traded away, or that Sacagawea saved the expedition by overhearing secret plans and ratting on her brother to her husband. The passage in Who Was Sacagawea? is entirely fictitious.


Not only is it fictitious, it is actively harmful. Why was that passage so believable that two decades’ worth of editors, reviewers, librarians, parents and schoolchildren never (to my knowledge) questioned it? Because it plays into our negative stereotypes of Native Americans. Because the shifty, capricious Indian chief fits neatly into our worldview and our preconceptions.


As for Sacagawea’s motivations in leaving behind her Shoshone people and staying with her husband, I found no information in the Lewis and Clark journals other than the following passage about the Shoshone man she had been betrothed to. As it turns out, he was still alive but didn’t want her back (p. 118).


When we brought her back, her betrothed was still living. Although he was double the age of Sacajawea, and had two other wives, he claimed her, but on finding that she had a child by her new husband, Chaboneau, he relinquished his pretensions and said he did not want her.


I assume that the authors of Who Was Sacagawea? read the same passages I read. Why was the passage above not offered as a possible reason Sacagawea stayed with the white expedition? Why was the passage about Cameahwait re-imagined into a traitorous plot point?


Because we want that happy ending so badly. Portraying Sacagawea as winning with the good guys is much easier than addressing what happened to those other guys. Sacagawea gets the happy ending we want her to have, but it is at the cost of being airlifted to the other team.

Sacagawea’s Son

I have one last critique of Who Was Sacagawea? in particular, and the Sacagawea story in general. Both have to do with Sacagawea’s baby.


The illustrator of Who Was Sacagawea?, like the authors, clearly cares about his characters and has clearly done research in bringing them to life. That said, I can’t get over this picture of Sacagawea’s one-year old son:




The hunched back, the weak chin, and the enormous feet look like they were inspired by popular imagery of Neanderthals. The Lewis and Clark expedition was 200 years ago, not 40,000 years ago. I’m sure the illustrator meant well. But it’s easy for subconscious bias like this to creep into illustrations, and go uncaught by an editorial and publishing team. As with the fictitious plot point about the traitorous Indian chief, this baby is believable only because of our own latent stereotypes and preconceptions.


The final story element that appears in every account of Sacagawea’s life is William Clark’s fondness for both her and her child. After repeated offers, Clark adopted the boy when he was about six years old. Sacagawea died shortly after giving birth to his sister two years later. Clark adopted the baby girl as well. She doesn’t appear in his records at all after her initial adoption, and may not have survived past childhood.


It’s easy for contemporary readers to see Clark’s adoption of Sacagawea’s son as being sweet and heartwarming, without recognizing the underlying worldview and preconceptions of the era: kind white adoptive parents will civilize the savage child and give that child a better life. I have yet to see any account of Sacagawea’s life that addresses the adoption of her children in the context of the United States government’s soon-to-be-realized practices of forced assimilation, now commonly referred to as cultural genocide.


The broader topic of assimilation is far too complex for a review like this to address. I’ll instead follow Dr. Reese’s advice and point readers to the recent film Dawnland, which tells the heartbreaking story of how Indigenous children were removed from their homes in order to “save them from being Indian.” The investigation shown in Dawnland was conducted through Maine’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first of its kind in the United States. Last year, then-Congresswoman Deb Haaland (now Secretary of the Interior), a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, introduced a similar bill at the federal level. The main section of this bill is well worth reading.

Decolonizing Sacagawea

Above, I wrote briefly that an honest biography of Sacagawea, with the tragic parts told, would look very different from the biographies that schoolchildren read today. When we zoom in, the exploration and discovery story is endlessly appealing. But when we zoom out, we can better see the false framing, the false timeline, the invasion and occupation story, the assimilation story, the appropriation, the wishful thinking, the latent stereotypes, and the ongoing harm.


I honestly don’t believe that any of this can be fixed for the target audience of the Who Was? series. A newly rewritten Who Was Sacagawea? with corrections made to all its falsehoods and errors would still be a dramatization beyond what we can reasonably know about Sacagawea’s own internal motivations, and it would still feature the same exploration, discovery, and settlement narrative. Tamper too much with any of these elements, and the story loses its appeal. Despite everyone’s best intentions, it would slowly get zoomed back in and edited back down to its previous form, perhaps with a few awkward and unconvincing disclaimers.


Older students could perhaps benefit from an entirely different treatment of Sacagawea’s story, one that bypasses the false dramatization and instead presents all the primary source journal fragments in their original form, along with the tools and context necessary to understand why and how they got assembled together to fit the familiar, colonialist narrative. Even then, there are many chasms where such a book and its readers could easily get trapped. This would prevent them from reassembling the puzzle pieces into a more honest form. I don’t pretend to be able to navigate past these chasms, but I will point them out because I’ve encountered each of them multiple times over the course of researching this piece.


First and foremost, there’s the strong desire to save both Sacagawea and the Lewis and Clark expedition from being cast as the bad guys. This is understandable, given that the explorers weren’t the ones who authorized the invasion, occupation, and cultural genocide that followed the expedition. It can be difficult to grasp that even though the Lewis and Clark expedition didn’t directly do the harm, it was and is an extremely effective vehicle for justifying the harm done to Native peoples. This justification happens in other places and times, too, as shown by the engineered lake over Mandan Indian homelands--a lake that was named for her, and the statues of her, everywhere. Her name is used to serve the same purpose: justifying colonialism.


A decolonized biography of Sacagawea would need to focus on dismantling the propaganda rather than arguing about everyone’s good intentions. Straw man arguments against Sacagawea being a traitor tend to fall into this trap. No, she herself wasn’t a traitor in the Benedict Arnold sense. She didn’t name the lake. But her story routinely gets told to children in a way that betrays her people: revisionist history followed by erasure and hollow commemoration. We lose sight of the betrayal when we take swings at the straw man.


Another potential chasm is the fact that Sacagawea and her descendants proudly figure in multiple tribes’ oral histories, at odds with the scanty written record that says she died at age 25. It’s tricky to avoid passing judgment on the veracity of competing claims, and it’s even trickier to avoid taking tribal members’ pride in their kinship with Sacagawea as license to continue telling our own harmful version of the story. My hope is that we can respect the Lemhi Shoshone, Shoshone-Bannock, Wind River Shoshone, Hidatsa, and Comanche histories while recognizing that popularizing one or more of them would have little effect on the revisionist history currently being taught to children. Even though we could, in theory, give Sacagawea a happier personal ending by adopting a version of the story where she leaves her white husband and reunites with her own (Shoshone or Hidatsa or Comanche) people, the happier personal ending doesn’t change the broader political and historical canvas. 


Perhaps the most significant chasm is the whiteness of the source material itself. The Lewis and Clark expedition diarists, despite their best efforts, were not reliable ethnographers. Their journals contain numerous misrepresentations of Indian traditions and customs. An honest biography would need to address and compensate for those misrepresentations, which is much easier said than done. Sacagawea spent most of the journey alone among white people. She’s an easy heroine to offer up to white kids precisely because of her isolation. They get a semblance of diversity without ever needing to experience an Indigenous society or lifeway or worldview.


I haven’t commented on the authenticity of any of the cultural details in Who Was Sacagawea? because I am not Native American myself, but even I cringed every time the book made blithe generalizations about “Indian” customs without specifying which tribe they belonged to. Is it common for all Indians to have many different names during childhood (p. 6)? Do all Indians refer to late October as “Moon of the Falling Leaves” (p. 23)? Do all Indians refer to the middle of winter as “Frost in the Tipi” (p. 31)? No, of course not. These cultural details, even if they’re authentic, are unique to specific tribes. But mixing and matching those details is apparently good enough for white authors writing for white children. Sacagawea’s story unfortunately lends itself to this surface-level treatment because the reader meets a lot of tribes without lingering long enough to differentiate between them.


Getting past these chasms goes well beyond my own knowledge or ability. I will, however, offer one screening question for any future biography of Sacagawea that purports to be decolonized: is the reader upset by the end of the story? Has the reader acquired enough cultural and historical context from outside the expedition itself to mourn the government betrayals and the lost homelands? If the reader is not actively mourning, then perhaps the book in their hands is still the same old story that continues to deny the truths of what happened.


If this sounds depressing, there are other ways to offer hope. There are other Indigenous heroes and heroines to celebrate, especially for the younger audience of the Who Was? series. There are contemporary heroes and heroines who would help kids realize that Native Americans still exist today. Endlessly rehashing the Sacagawea story seems to make white people feel better, but it’s ultimately an avoidance mechanism. It’s an easy way to get a Native American heroine onto a bookshelf without challenging white mindsets and white worldviews. It pushes better books off the shelf and prevents better books from being written.


There are better books already out there. My daughter and I are slowly making our way through some of the selections on Dr. Reese’s website. We both loved Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story by S. D. Nelson (Abrams, 2013). That’s a start. I too have a lot to learn.


References


[1] Blee, Lisa (2005). Completing Lewis and Clark's Westward March. Oregon Historical Quarterly, 106(2), 245. Retrieved from https://www.ohs.org/research-and-library/oregon-historical-quarterly/upload/Blee-Completing-Lewis-and-Clark.pdf


[2] Oregonian, July 7, 1905. Retrieved from https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn83025138/1905-07-07/ed-1/seq-11/


[3] Conner, Roberta (2006). Our People Have Always Been Here. In Josephy, Alvin Jr. (ed.), Lewis and Clark through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition (p. 90). Vintage.


[4] Ibid, p. 100.


[5] Blee, Lisa (2005). Completing Lewis and Clark's Westward March. Oregon Historical Quarterly, 106(2), 239. Retrieved from https://www.ohs.org/research-and-library/oregon-historical-quarterly/upload/Blee-Completing-Lewis-and-Clark.pdf


[6] Ibid, pp. 239-245.


[7] Brooks, Joanna (2004). Sacajawea, Meet Cogewea. In Fresonke, Kris, and Mark Spence (eds.), Lewis & Clark: Legacies, Memories, and New Perspectives (p. 184). Berkeley:  University of California Press. Retrieved from http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt4q2nc6k3/


[8] Campbell, G. (2001). The Lemhi Shoshoni: Ethnogenesis, Sociological Transformations, and the Construction of a Tribal Nation. American Indian Quarterly, 25(4), 556-567. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1186016


[9] Ibid, p. 567.


[10] “MHA Nation History.” Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, MHA Nation. Retrieved April 6, 2021 from www.mhanation.com/history


[11] Cross, Raymond (2004). “Twice-born” From the Waters. In Fresonke, Kris, and Mark Spence (eds.), Lewis & Clark: Legacies, Memories, and New Perspectives (p. 117). Berkeley:  University of California Press. Retrieved from http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt4q2nc6k3/


[12] Fernando, Christine (2021, February 27). “Pandemic leaves Chinook Nation in Washington, other tribes not federally recognized, at higher risk.” The Seattle Times. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/covid-19-pandemic-leaves-chinook-nation-other-tribes-without-us-recognition-at-higher-risk/ 


[13] TW - sexual violence. “Toussaint Charbonneau.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, April 10, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/jeff/learn/historyculture/toussaint-charbonneau.htm


[14]  Lewis, Meriwether & Clark, William (1814). “History of the expedition in command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the sources of the Missouri : across the Rocky Mountains down the Columbia River to the Pacific in 1804-6 : a reprint of the edition of 1814 to which all the members of the expedition contributed” (pp. 110-111). Toronto: Morang.

Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/historyofexpedi02lewi/page/110/mode/2up