Thursday, November 09, 2006

Guest post: Kara Stewart, "Children's Books about Thanksgiving"

I am a teacher. I am also Native American (Sappony). I’m very lucky that my principal and lead teacher are supportive of me in that they are quite willing to listen to my views on teaching to and about Native Americans and act accordingly.

Recently, many colorful, attractive-looking books were put on display in our elementary school’s teacher resource room, available for check out to teachers as great books to read aloud during November. Many of them had the usual Thanksgiving scenes and theme on the cover.

Upon reading several of them, I began to feel uncomfortable. I had a feeling that several of them would be on Oyate’s “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving” list. Sure enough, they were. But I felt I needed to give more solid reasons for removing them from the resource room than “they are on Oyate’s Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving list” and “the Indian teacher in the school is offended by them”. Often, it is difficult to articulate feelings of discomfort or offense, and present them in a way that others will understand, and also tell why those feelings have surfaced. I needed some help – something to give me more specifics, “hard data” almost, or other opinions to think about, especially the opinions of those that have critiqued many books like this.

So I did some digging. Oyate also has a section on their site called “Books to Avoid”, which you can find from the home page (left side bar, last choice). But none of the ones I wanted were listed (there are in-depth reviews of very common books, such as The Indian in the Cupboard, The Courage of Sarah Noble, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, Little House on the Prairie, The Sign of the Beaver and more).

Also on the Oyate site, again under “Resources,” there is a link to Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving” (see the Longer Version) by Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin. I found this document very helpful and enlightening. I read it carefully to get a sense of what is a myth about Thanksgiving, and what is more historically accurate. As it turns out, much of what we accept and were taught about “The First Thanksgiving” simply is not historically supportable. Much of it simply is not true.

The Deconstructing article, in addition to giving the more likely historical facts and the reasons for them, also provides quite a few quotes from books on the “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving” list as specific examples of part of the reason why those books are not recommended. Most of the books that were put out in our teacher resource room fell under this category – historically inaccurate - in addition to having other problems.

What we were taught about “The First Thanksgiving” and what many of us have inadvertently perpetuate in our students and even our own children seems to be a sort of mishmashed conglomerate of ideas that have been taught as ‘the way things were’ to students for many, many years. Much of that mishmash is made up of stereotypes of Native Americans. These stereotypes lead many Native Americans to be uncomfortable and offended with the “traditional” way Thanksgiving is presented to students. Many of the books were also written from very Eurocentric viewpoints, as if the Europeans’ version of events is the only true version, as if there was no thriving society in America before they came, as if the Indian viewpoint does not matter enough to write or consider. In other words, the books are “whitewashed.” In addition to that, in many instances, the historical inaccuracies also amount to ‘whitewashing’ – for example, an innocuous sounding, “The ‘Pilgrims’ found corn” covers the more historically accurate version which amounts to that the Europeans took the Indians’ cached corn in addition to items from a child’s grave and things from two Indian homes, all with no restitution. See the Deconstructing article for more on this point.

Several examples of Eurocentric writing that perpetuate stereotypes stood out to me. In The First Thanksgiving by Linda Hayward, the ‘Pilgrims’ spend 30 of the 48 pages in this book being afraid of the Indians. The book is peppered with phrases such as,
“They’ve been warned that Indians may attack them.”
America looks wild and strange. Is it safe? Are Indians hiding in the forest?”
“Suddenly they see Indians! But the Indians are frightened and run away.”
“They know the Indians are watching them. They can see smoke from their campfires. They can hear them in the woods. A guard is posted day and night.”
“The Indians must not know how few Pilgrims are left.”
“Indians are sighted nearby. They come closer and closer. Then one day an Indian walks right into the settlement. The children are terrified. But the Indian smiles and says, ‘Welcome’. His name is Samoset. He speaks English! The Pilgrims ask Samoset many questions. They give him presents. They want to trust this friendly Indian. Samoset comes back with an Indian named Squanto. He speaks even better English!”
The book then goes on to give an unrealistically oversimplified (and inaccurate) version of how, after that, the ‘Pilgrims’ and Indians were friends. (Read the Deconstructing article to find out why I put ‘Pilgrims’ in quotes.)

In addition to the extremely condescending tone of the book towards Native Americans (“He speaks even better English!”) and general feeling it leaves me with (Indians being akin to wild dogs that run and hide in the forest) is a clear message that Indians are not to be trusted. “They want to trust Samoset” (but can’t because he’s an Indian?). That is what will be passed on to every child that hears or read this book. They may not be able to articulate the message they are getting out of this book (just like I couldn’t before I put considerable thought and effort into understanding and articulating why it was so offensive to me), but they will be learning exactly that.

Another example of that sort of unthinking condescension that so frequently peppers the Eurocentric view in these books is in Marc Brown’s Arthur’s Thanksgiving. Let me just say that I love Marc Brown’s books in general and also his character, Arthur. Marc Brown is one of the authors I do author studies on. I promote and read many different Arthur books to my students. So the discomfort and offense this book gave me was doubly disappointing. In the book, Arthur and his pals are putting on the “traditional” Thanksgiving play for school. Through this book, they are passing on historically inaccurate information to kids. Here is a problematic excerpt as Arthur and pals try to decide who will play which part for the play:

Arthur showed Muffy a drawing of the turkey costume.
“Lots of feathers,” said Arthur. It’s a very glamorous role.”
“Yuk! Vomitrocious!” squealed Muffy. I should be the Indian princess. I have real braids."
“Brain, I’ve saved the most intelligent part for you," explained Arthur.
“No way will I be the turkey,” answered Brain. "I'll be the Indian chief."
Which leaves at least three impressions: 1) that there are “Indian princesses,” 2) “Indian princesses” all have braids, and 3) that a turkey is more intelligent than an Indian, since Brain assumed that Arthur was talking about the turkey when Arthur said he had saved the most intelligent part for Brain.

Jean Craighead George is another of my favorite authors. But her book, The First Thanksgiving is full of historical inaccuracies, many of which whitewash the situation. But her last sentence of the book is the killer, to me. She refers to Plymouth Rock and then says, “It is the rock on which our nation began.”

Excuse me? America did not begin until the ‘Pilgrims’ arrived? America had no cultures, societies, nothing until the ‘Pilgrims’ arrived and there was supposedly a Thanksgiving feast with the Indians? This is an obvious example of Eurocentric writing discounting any view but that of Europeans. It is highly offensive to those of us who are Indian or part Indian. It should be highly offensive to everyone since incorrect information has been passed along to all readers.

Some may say that I am overly sensitive to this topic in my reactions to the above examples of stereotypes and Eurocentric writing. I encourage you to substitute similar analogies in the above examples using “African Americans” instead of “Indians.” Did you try it? Sound a little fishy? Substitute in your heritage group for “Indians.” Starting to smart a little?

Now add to that a big theme that is based on historical inaccuracies – inaccuracies about a series of events, inaccuracies about your heritage group (as well as stereotypes), and inaccuracies about the supposed ‘culminating’ event. Starting to feel uncomfortable? Perhaps a little offended?

Let’s take it a step further. Let’s teach all of that about your heritage group – the stereotypes, the inaccuracies, the whitewashing – to kids as the truth. Let’s make school plays out of it and teach it as if it were fact. And then let’s continue to believe it and teach it and give life to it as adults despite many of your heritage group’s objections, and despite the availability of resources and information on how to teach accurately, non-offensively, and not inadvertently.

And now I can say that I understand why those books were on the “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving list from Oyate.

*It should be noted that the list of “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving” is not exhaustive, which is why we all need to read critically with an understanding of historical accuracy as well as the issues of Eurocentrism and stereotypes. Oyate also has a list of References/Recommended books.

Kara Stewart

Edited on July 23, 2015, to update links.


Sean Carter said...

Thanksgiving is a very important events for all of us. There's more Thanksgiving than just feasting and having a good time. All the young ones should also know the historical significance and importance behind our most loved celebration. You can also visit my Thanksgiving Blog and find out all the info and facts I've posted. I'm sure you'll like it and please do share your thoughts as well.

Anonymous said...

"She refers to Plymouth Rock and then says, “It is the rock on which our nation began.”"

All of Kara's comments following this are correct, but even to the Eurocentric, Jean Craighead George's statement is wrong. Jamestown was founded 13 years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the article. The part that got me was the author's urging the readers to substitute "Native American" with their own heritage groups. That part of the article, in a way, opened some old wounds for me, and a much bigger fresher one. I feel this is going to be a long post but it's not spam. It might seem at first that it has nothing to do with the subject at hand but, for me at least, it truly does. I'll just try to describe why this article affected me as strongly as it did.

I'm a Slav and, though my heritage and experiences are vastly diferent from those of Native Americans, I do have a similar experience of coming across very hurtful stereotypes of illiterate, agressive, smelly Slavs in (contemporary!) books, films, on the TV...
More specifically, I'm a Balkan Slav, which, by many, is considered a shameful thing to be. The stereotypes of people from the Balkans as unwashed, primitive savages with below-average IQs abound. And, yes, I've seen such stereotypes in schoolbooks of several European countries.

Even more specifically, I'm a Croat, and many try to twist my nation's historical truths, both those of injustices against my nation or those commited by it. We are extremely weak compared to strong, rich countries and it is easy to blame us for virtually anything.
Just last month, I discovered an article in The Baltimore Sun describing Croats, my nation, as cold-blooded nazi murderers. It was the single most ridiculous,hateful and unresearched piece of quasi-journalism I've ever read. But those lies were for me also the most personally hurtful words I've come across. Even though I'm an adult, and have seen my share of such sensationalistic crap, my eyes were filled with tears by the time I was finished with it. The war a neighbouring nation led against Croatia in the 1990s to steal Croatian territory and crush Croatian independence is described in the article as a justified fight against the world's enemies: the Croats. The numerous massacres of Croatian civilians are not even mentioned. Reading such things in a renowned newspaper was an extremely painful experience and left me feeling used and helpless. While I'm the first to admit my country commited terrible crimes in WW II, and there were some terrible war crimes in the war of the 90s, my country wasn't alone in commiting crimes: it is difficult to find a country or a nation without sin. And most importantly, all the normal Croats( read: the overwhelming majority of the country) are aware and repentant of all of the country's sins. But the Baltimore Sun text is cruel and gives a completely false image that will, unfortunately embed itself in the minds of their readers.

My heart aches while I wonder if, when my children meet foreigners and tell them what nationality they are, those foreigners will see in my children hateful murderous people, potential mass killers, all because of stereotypes and false images.
Reading this article, and many more, on the subject of stereotypes and untruthful "facts" about Native Americans, my heart began to ache for all the Indian children who have ever been or who will ever be insulted or hurt by or because of such careless stereotypical treatment of themselves and their heritage.

I worry for them especially in the light of many negative stereotypes and outright lies spread about my own people. More precisely, in light of my fear of what my children's reaction would be if they saw the abovementioned Baltimore Sun article. Just as much as I wish to shield my children from such hurtful materials, I believe all children should be protected from that kind of thing. Therefore, I believe that factually correct education is crucial and I congratulate the author of this article for the effort put into finding out about all the historical truths and facts. Because THEY ARE important.

I wish with all my heart that stereotypical treatment of and untruths about any group soon become things of the past.

P.S. Also, I have this article's author to thank for turning me on to the Oyate website, whose reviews I found to be filled with valuable information, recommendations and warnings.

Anonymous said...

I want to teach my son the truth about Thanksgiving, rather than a bunch of -crap- that I know the public school will feed him. I like the fact that there's a list of "thanksgiving books" to avoid, but what about a thanksgiving book that's not to avoid? Is there a book that just tells all of the truth? I mean, the truth that is appropriate for a young child to know... It can be expanded on later in life, but a basis that treats Indians like people and not strange creatures? But, also represents the fear both cultures had of each other that they overcame, atleast for one civil get together?

Claudia said...

I recently read the article from The Broken Flute "Deconstructing the Myths of The First Thanksgiving". I was astonished to read some of the quotes that were listed as myths and then I followed the footnotes to see what book they were from. The books were published over a range of 48 years but the majority of them were from the late 1990's and early 2000's. Many were done by well known authors such as Gail Gibbons.
I was also amazed to read the facts that nullified the myths. I learned some very important facts that I did not know. I had never thought about questioning the "history" that I have been taught over the years and my eyes have been opened to hopefully begin reading with a more critical eye. I also want to become discerning when I choose books for children.