Sunday, July 09, 2006

A reader asked about CADDIE WOODLAWN....

When my daughter was in 3rd grade (eight years ago), one evening while doing reading homework, she said "Mom, I don't get it." She's a smart kid, so when she told me she didn't get it, I knew something was up. I asked her what she was doing. She held up Caddie Woodlawn. I knew right away what was coming. I was well into my graduate work by then, which centered on representation of Native Americans in children's books. Given UIUC's mascot ("Chief Illiniwek), Liz and I had (by then) many conversations about racism and representation and stereotyping.

By then, I had met and collaborated with Beverly Slapin at Oyate on some work. One evening, I talked with her about Liz and Caddie Woodlawn. The upshot of that conversation was that Liz dictated an essay to Beverly. The essay is called "Liz's Story" and it is in A Broken Flute, available from Oyate Here's part of what Liz said, back then, as an 8 year old:
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.
In the remainder of her essay, she 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, that she wanted them to drop it. Due to the careful work of the teacher prior to this (social justice), the group had great empathy and agreed to choose a different book. Liz's best friend at the time was also in the group. She said she didn't want them to pick a book that made white people look bad.

In the end, I bought 10 copies of Erdrich's Birchbark House and that is what they read.

This episode brought out a lot. The teacher chose this book because they were studying historical fiction, and she wanted them to read something located in or near the Midwest. She was using best practice in that regard. And, it was convenient because there were multiple copies of the book available at the school. She thought it would give the students the opportunity to deconstruct a flawed book, applying their critical thinking skills to issues of representation, etc.

Liz and I talked more about that episode. She said that when they (they were taking turns reading aloud) came to the phrase "Indian John," the boy who was reading at the time stopped and asked for a conversation about that name, suggesting they should change it (drop the "Indian). They talked about it, doing a fine job of applying critical skills. There were 5 kids in the group. In round robin style, each spoke about what they thought of the suggestion to drop "Indian." Child one said drop it. Child two said drop it. Child three said drop it. Child four was Liz's best friend, and she said she thought they should leave it as the author intended. Liz was next. Think of her dilemma. Follow her heart and vote to drop it, thereby leaving her best friend all alone in her vote? Remember---these are smart kids, but they're only eight years old. Liz voted with her friend, but they lost the vote anyway, and from that page on, the group did did not read aloud "Indian" when they came to that character's name.

I encourage everyone to get A Broken Flute. There are many essays in it, but also hundreds of reviews of books with American Indian content. A Broken Flute and Through Indian Eyes, both available from Oyate, are the very best resources out there to help teachers and librarians gain understanding and knowledge necessary to help them do a better job of teaching about American Indians.

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