Thursday, November 02, 2006

American Indian "Pourquoi" tales

A few days ago, the White House proclaimed November to be National American Indian Heritage Month. This happens every year. Across the country, teachers begin their lessons on American Indians, and their professional organizations and associations help them by suggesting activities they can do.

For example, the ReadWriteThink website (maintained by the International Reading Association and the National Council for Teachers of English) has a page (to get to it, go to their calendar and click on November 2nd) .

Here's the activity at the top of the page:

"Engage your students in an exploration of Native American heritage through a study of Native American pourquoi tales. Pourquoi tales explain why something or someone, usually in nature, is the way it is. Have your students read a variety of Native American pourquoi tales and then write original texts."

The activity is very popular, most adults did this activity when they were kids. It seems harmless and fun, but is it?

Is it harmless to take a peoples way of thinking about the world and use it as a playful model for a writing activity?

Would you do this with Genesis?

There is a double standard at work, subtly undermining the integrity of indigenous peoples whose stories are trivialized in this way. Engaging in these seemingly harmless activities has ramifications for the way children learn to think about American Indians and others whose stories are used like this.

Let's stop doing it.

Or, let's do it to Genesis, too. Teach children that all religions deserve the same treatment.


Anonymous said...

"The activity is very popular, most adults did this activity when they were kids. It seems harmless and fun, but is it?

Is it harmless to take a peoples way of thinking about the world and use it as a playful model for a writing activity?"

You've changed the intent of the Pourquoi Tale exercise into something that it was not intended. Where in the instructions does it say it's harmless and fun, or a playful model for a writing activity? Educators can make this as serious or frothy as they wish, as they would with any assignment. You are presuming that teachers cannot properly teach.

You continue to lose credibility as you create problems that do not exist.

tengrrl said...

As always, ReadWriteThink appreciates feedback on
the resources on the site. We're always working
to improve the materials that are freely
available for K12 teachers. I'd like to let
everyone know that you can offer feedback easily
on our site by clicking the "Contact Us" link,
which appears at the top of every Web page. The
message that you send comes directly to the
ReadWriteThink staff (real people, not a dump
folder). We make every effort to reply within 1 to 2 business days.

ReadWriteThink has an open door policy regarding
feedback. Please feel that you can contact us
with any suggestions for improvement at any time.
We are also always looking for people with
expertise with K12 education who can write lesson
plans and review resources on the site. If you
are interested in joining the ReadWriteThink
team, just fill out the form at

Specifically, the resource Debbie refers to comes
from our Literacy Calendar. Our calendar entries
give educators an entry into content on our
site. The classroom activity in particular came
from a lesson plan on the same topic. That
lesson plan is currently being revised and will
be reposted later in the winter. These revisions
are based upon a study of multicultural
representations on the site. Revisions to the
lesson plan will be based upon the following input from the report:

"It is also important to avoid describing aspects
of Native American spirituality in
non-religious/non-spiritual terms. There is, for
example, a lesson about 'Pourquoi stories'
(creation myths) that included some Native
American stories. While some of these were
probably originally meant as non-serious
children's stories, some are actually part of
that particular group's spiritual belief
system. This lesson instructed teachers twice to
make sure students know these stories are not
true. Any topic relating to a group's
mythology/core belief system should be accorded
the same respect one would give any other religion."

The calendar entry will also be revised to
reflect those revisions. We are constantly
working to improve our resources, and I'm sure
that additional changes will be made in the
future to allow for a wider representation of all cultures.

Traci Gardner
Online Content Developer, ReadWriteThink
National Council of Teachers of English

Anonymous said...

I read the following articles and found them useful in thinking about this post:

I am not quite certain that Genesis applies as an example since public schools are not allowed, in most places, to study the Bible or teach it! And probably most teachers would protest if they were made to teach it.

I do recall a parent of a sixth-grade girl in a Sunday School class of mine, however, who helped her daughter stand up for the right to perform an oral retelling of the Genesis story in school to fulfill some sort of curriculum requirement.

The other small difficulty with Genesis is that it is part of the Bible, and perhaps no other religous text in history has been so freely re-interpreted, retold, misinterpreted, mistranlated, edited, bashed, mangled, stomped on, and treated as dirt as the Bible has been--and never mroe so than in modern times.

I cringe at how the Bible is misused, again and again and treated with such disrepsect, particlarly with children, in evagnelical circles today, and I am a devout Cristian--I do not pretend to be an evangelical. I do not know what that term may mean to others. I don't like it or use it. The scriptures are precious to me, and it makes me sad to see it when they get abuse--particularly in books for children.

I have taught the Genesis story and many other Bible stories in Sunday School for different ages. We've done puppet shows, clay murals, playacting the stories out, but I never required the children to imitate it and to write a creation story of their own, in a lterary sense. I was teacher and teller; they were listeners and learners. That's the way it ought to be.

I think the probelmatic point that we have all missed here about the right or wrong of this particular lesson plan for Native American stories is that the children are being required in to create but in an imitative way, their own versions of these stories.

Children do not tell these stories in tribal cultures. The elders do. Children are to listen and to learn from these stories and to apply the lessons to their own lives and maybe some will go on to learn how to tell the stories themselves one day, when they've had enough training and experience and can show themselve worthy to do so.

In the same way, it is not appropriate for children to model their own stories on the Genesis story or myths or folktales or stories from any ethnic group. The children don't have the knowldge or experience to do that.

I also think that there is real truth in both the Genesis texts and these Native American stories. It is not accurate to say that they are not true. They convey truth about the world and human nature and our relationships with each other and the natural world that cannot be learned in the scientist's laboratory. There is a differnt kind of wisdom here.

I wonder why a storyteller from a nearby tribe cannot be brought in to tell the stories to the children adn to help them learn respect for both the teller and the tales. Surely, if schools are willing and able to pay for author visits from those who write books about these stories, sometimes from long distances away, a storyteller from a nearby tribe could be found and given the same amoutn of money, too, I'd say, to help the school celebrate this day.

That's what I would do. If I were not allowed to do so by the school, I see great value in teaching children to listen and to learn truths from oral retellings of appropriate stories in the classroom.

The teachers are forcing these great stories into a literary box. The stories were never intended in teh first place to be literature. They are more than just religious tales as well.

Anonymous said...

It's my understanding that myths from the Northwest Coast are generally not describing why something happened, though they are often interpreted that way. My impression is that myths from the Northwest Coast usually fall into one of two camps; either they relay a historical family event or they are used to teach children how (or with Raven or Coyote, how not) to behave. I don't know that this applies to myths from other regions, but that's how it seems with our stories. - Len

Anonymous said...

My school's reading series has included The Great Ball Game by Joseph Bruchac in our anthology. I must admit that I used the the story as a Mentor Text to model the wonderfully clear story structure of problem,solution, outcome. I did have my students create their own 'pourquoi'-ish tale. The students picked a rule from the school and then created a story to explain why we have this rule. One student wrote a very creative story about the lunch ladies and the students having a kick-ball game. The students lost and had to use lunch trays from that day on. I won't be doing that this year since I can see that could be insensitive (just add it to the list). I guess it was 'frothy' and 'trivial'. However, I did not 'make-up' my own spiritual story either.

And, I have to respectfully disagree with rindawriter who said that "The teachers are forcing these great stories into a literary box. The stories were never intended in teh first place to be literature." Maybe these stories weren't meant to be "literature", but they were meant to be stories. As a teacher, I help my students become story tellers. Orally, written, acted. These are ways that we tell stories. It must be practiced and honed. Using great texts as examples and models is one of the best ways to learn and teach storytelling.

I hope I wasn't too mean. :)