Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Below is an essay from an organization called Students and Teachers Against Racism. Its authors sent it to me, with permission to post it here.


Students and Teachers Against Racism
PO Box 801
Fairfield, CT 06824


A report on the effects of The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare

Students and Teachers Against Racism is an organization whose purpose is to identify and remove discrimination against American Indian students from the classroom and from curriculum. In our experience, we have found that certain kinds of material, especially involving stereotypes, used in the classroom can contribute to civil rights violations. American Indian children may also experience anger and shame when confronted with certain books and material, particularly when they feel they have been misrepresented or history is wrongly depicted. Some American Indian children may feel that a school that promotes such material is offering them the blatant message that the school harbors anti-Indian feelings towards them.

American Indian students suffer higher drop-out rates than any other ethnic group. In some urban areas, those rates may average around 10-20 percent. However, on reservations and in border towns, these rates can soar to 30-50%. Historically, education has not been kind to American Indian people and as a result, parents who had negative experiences with their own schooling may not encourage their children to complete their education. American Indian children need all the support they can get in order to be successful in school. A book like Sign of the Beaver reminds American Indian children of the hateful attitudes of non-Indians in the past, and brings those attitudes into the classroom today. The fact that the book completely misrepresents historical truth is yet another reason to remove it from the school. If a book like this is to be used at all, it must first be used with lesson plans that explain stereotypes and propaganda, and how they were used to undermine American Indian people in order to inflict genocide in the pursuit of Westward expansion.

It is imperative that schools recognize that the materials used in the classroom effect the students that they teach. In order for American Indian students to succeed, they must believe that the school respects them and has full confidence they can succeed. Any book that promotes the attitude that non-American Indian students are superior to Indian students, can dislike them without reason, and can mock their ways and culture only serves to alienate the American Indian students from the class. The Sign of the Beaver is guilty of all of these attitudes.

Two people within our organization assessed the book. One is an Ojibwe doctoral candidate who is focusing his dissertation on racism, the other is a White, Civil Rights case worker for our organization. We have assembled this report based on their findings. We sincerely hope that this helps bring understanding to the situation at hand.

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

Books that are written by whites about Indians virtually always, even with the best of intentions, stereotype Indian people. Many writers will defend their writing by saying they have done considerable research, however, unless the writer has had extensive contact with the specific tribe they are writing about (and preferably that tribe has approved it) the opinions formed by the writer can only be done from their own cultural perspective, and often, bias.

In books that portray the past without historical accuracy and with disregard for the American Indian perspective of history, the ways of American Indians are often judged according to white standards of civilization rather than from a position of respect for the culture they are depicting. Since the non-American Indian perspective is often based on blaming the victim, it is easy to see how the young American Indian child might become angry at the manner in which their ancestors are portrayed. The fact that whites held themselves harmless while removing the Indians from their land, destroying their crops and fields, destroying their homes, disrupting their culture and frequently forcing the Indians to starve, as well as committing outright genocide, is a perspective that must be exposed in the classroom, not perpetuated.

In books such as The Sign of the Beaver, The Indian in the Cupboard, and the Little House on the Prairie, Indians are almost always portrayed speaking pidgin English, appearing lazy or foolish, and as being backward and un-evolved. This is seen from Chapter Three on, in The Sign of the Beaver we were able to highlight at least 36 pages out of 135 that contained some kind of anti-Indian reference such as stereotypes, cultural misrepresentations, and other offensive passages based on bias rather than truthful representation. For the sake of brevity we will only highlight some of the more offensive statements in the following paragraphs:

Chapter Eleven, page 52:

Or they would tramp along the creek to a good spot for fishing. Attean seemed to have plenty of time on his hands. Sometimes he would just hang around and watch Matt do chores. He would stand at the edge of the corn patch and look on while Matt pulled weeds.
"Squaw work," he commented once.
Matt flushed. "We think its man's work," he retorted.
Attean said nothing. He did not offer to help. After a time he wandered off without saying goodbye. It must be mighty pleasant, Matt thought to himself, to just hunt and fish all day and not have any work to do. That wasn't his father's way, and it wouldn't ever be his. The work was always waiting to be done, but if he got the corn patch cleared and the wood chopped today, he could go fishing with Attean tomorrow-if Attean invited him.

The implication that Matt has so much work to do and Attean does nothing but hunt and fish reflects the condescending attitude of settlers at the time. The Puritan ethic was that hard work kept the devil away. American Indian people certainly had their share of hard work in sustaining their lifestyles even in harsh weather. However, because the type of hard work American Indian people needed to perform in order to survive was not recognized as generating profit, by the settlers’ standards it was judged less important.

Early writings also show that the settlers were astonished at the hard work American Indian women did. However, what is virtually always left out of the conversation is that women worked hard because they were seen as equals to men in every way, which was not true of the status of European white women, who were often written about as possessions, who had little say in the home, in business, in politics or any other decision making process. In fact, Susan B. Anthony arrived at the idea of fighting for women's rights from the Oneida women with whom she spent considerable time. The opinions of American Indian women were valued and respected, and they were often the ones who retained rights to their home, possessions and children. All of that was unheard of by the settlers, who treated women and children as possessions. Therefore, the implication that "squaw's work" was demeaning was a white value, and does not accurately reflect the American Indian values at all.

Page 97:

Attean think squaw girl is not good for much.

Women were highly regarded in all tribes, and were seen as sacred in that they are creators of life. Many tribes were, and still are, matriarchal societies while white society has always been patriarchal. Also, the use of the word squaw is inappropriate as it reflects women's genitalia. While it may not have been used by all tribes exclusively in that manner, from tribe to tribe it was. The word entered common usage from the traders who adapted the word for use for prostitutes. It is not a word that connotes respect and there have been many complaints by Indian women who even today are called squaw by ignorant people. It is not a good word to teach children to use. The same can be said for the book's constant reference to redskins, which is said to have originated from the time when Indians were hunted for bounty. Since the entire dead body was difficult to transport, Indians were skinned, and the bloody skins were called redskins. The period of time The Sign of the Beaver takes place is indeed during the time and in the specific area where colonists hunted Indians for bounties. It is gruesome and offensive to many American Indian people today, and the word redskin is often seen as being the same kind of racial slur as nigger.

This next passage shows another cultural misrepresentation:

Matt knew that the Indian boy came day after day only because his grandfather sent him. For some reason, the old man had taken pity on this helpless white boy, and at the same time he had shrewdly grasped at the chance for his grandson to read. If he suspected that Attean had become the teacher instead, he would doubtless have put a stop to the visits altogether.

Attean's grandfather was kind and had Attean bring food each day for Matt. Later in the book, the grandfather insists that Matt attend a ceremony to celebrate his involvement with Attean in the killing of the bear. At the end of the book, the grandfather has Attean ask Matt if he would like to travel with the tribe as they are forced to relocate because the trappers had eliminated too much of their food sources. The grandfather certainly recognized that Attean was spending a considerable amount of time with Matt, so why on earth would he have put a stop to Attean's teaching Matt how to survive? In fact, in light of what was happening historically, precisely at that time and in that area, with tribes being forced to relocate due to having their forts burned, their people killed by diseases purposely brought into their midst and bounties that were offered for their scalps by proclamations from the government, it is amazing that the grandfather didn't leave Matt there to fend for himself in the first place.

It seems that the only reason to portray the grandfather as disapproving of Matt gaining anything in the relationship with Attean, is to attribute unattractive behavior based on lack of generosity on the grandfather. Not only is this passage inconsistent with other descriptions of the grandfather, but American Indian cultures in general actually disapproved of greedy and withholding behaviors. In essence, this passage exists solely to promote racism, which unfortunately happens throughout the book.

Chapter Eighteen, page 94:

He was not surprised when she led him straight to the most substantial cabin in the clearing. He had recognized on the night of the feast that Saknis was a chief.

Accumulated material wealth is a white value. It is unlikely the chief would have had the most substantial cabin. In most tribes, the chief was chosen to be so because he eschewed wealth and gave most of his possessions away. Greed has always been the antithesis of American Indian cultures and many tribes celebrated good fortune by giving away their possessions. This societal trait was documented by Columbus, by the Franciscan monks who decried the cruelty of the Spanish soldiers, by the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, and in many other documents.

Beyond the cultural misrepresentations, the book is rampant with stereotypes which are as hateful and blatantly racist as any to be found anywhere.

Chapter Sixteen, page 78:

Then he was aware of the Indians. They sat silently on either side of the fire, their painted faces ghastly in the flickering light.

Their painted faces would have been ceremonial and perhaps dramatic. A word like ghastly insinuates horror, which was not the intent and is not respectful of the culture.

Page 79:

The Indians seemed satisfied. Smiles flashed in their dark faces. There was rough laughter, and then, seeming to forget him, they began to jabber to each other.

This comment about their jabbering to each other minimizes the beautiful and intricate Algonquin language. The image painted is cartoon-like, and again, very disrespectful and mocking.

Page 81:

A lone Indian had leaped to the head of the line, beating a rattle against his palm in an odd stirring rhythm. He strutted and pranced in ridiculous contortions, for all the world like a clown in a village fair. The line of figures followed after him, aping him and stomping their feet in response.

The ridicule in this passage is hateful, mocking, demeaning and probably better describes the exaggerated antics of today’s abusive Indian sports team mascots rather than of a American Indian involved in a ceremonial dance. Can you imagine how an American Indian child feels about this when they are described in such disrespectful terms? Ridiculous contortions? Clown in a village fair? There is nothing in this that embraces American Indian culture.

But then:

Matt found it simple to follow the step. His confidence swelled as the rhythm throbbed through his body, loosening his tight muscles. He was filled with excitement and happiness. His own heels pounded against the hard ground. He was one of them.

In this remarkable passage, all demeaning, belittling, ridiculous images disappear. Suddenly, when Matt, perhaps because he is white, dances in the same fashion, he is empowered. This passage is incredibly distressing. There are many whites who try to follow American Indian culture, appropriate it, and then tell American Indian people they are not performing their culture properly. There are stories of team mascots dancing ridiculously and telling American Indian people to be honored if they see a white person mimicking their ways in inappropriate venues. There are whites who attempt to learn American Indian spirituality, then charge money for ceremonies. There are boy scouts that hold pow wows and tell American Indian attendees that they are dancing wrong. This passage rings with the very offensive suggestion that when Indians dance they are clowns. When the white boy dances, he is empowered. It is beyond condescending and well into imperialistic.

Throughout the book, Matt describes Attean in ways that make it clear he admires Attean, he is jealous of Attean, daydreams of besting Attean, distrusts Attean and very often says that he dislikes Attean. We are never given any reason he should have disliked Attean so much, since Attean teaches him to hunt, find his way though the woods, makes sure he has enough to eat, and invites him, against his grandmother's wishes, to participate in a ceremony. All of this is summed up in the fact that Matt is racist, and this book promotes the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to dislike someone for no reason, even if they save your life.

While in real life, we are not compelled to spend time with someone whose company we do not enjoy, a book like this absolutely promotes the idea that whites are superior and that racism against Indians is acceptable. It is a poor choice of books to subject any child to, no matter their race.

As an organization, we are glad this book has been brought to our attention. We have had far too many complaints of children being called the names in this book, as well as violent and racist behavior on school grounds ranging from bullying to white gang whipping an Indian child, to ignore the fact that this book puts the minds of all children in harms way.

Report prepared by Christine Rose, Copyright 2006
Michael Eshkibok, Ojibwe, UND Doctoral Candidate, consultant for this report


Anonymous said...

I am appalled to see how truly stereotypical this book really is. I had originally planned to use this book with my students, but I have now changed my mind.

Anonymous said...

As a future educator, I have learned how important it is to read books with a critical eye. This article is a great example of how we underestimate the meaning of a book. The only way I would use this book in my future classroom would be for older grades to gain an understanding and recognize the stereotypes used throughout the book.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the insight that this article provided. Some of the examples discussed were very surprising to me. It does show that as a teacher it is important to do research on the materials that you present to your class.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that will not use this book in my future classroom. I think the stereotypes that are represented throughout the book is something we do not want to teach our students. This article was very educational. I also agree with the statement that we must have a critical eye to what we present to our classrooms

Anonymous said...

I think that it is extremely important that teachers take the time to investigate their materials before introducing it to the class. I also think that these biases and stereotypes should be presented to the class before they begin reading so that they are aware of the situation. This article was very eye opening

Carys said...

I've just found out this book is on the list of 'core' books for our upper elementary school (grades 4-5). The students all have to read the a selection of the core books. As soon as I saw this one, I came over to your blog to check out the review. I knew the name sounded familiar, but I couldn't recall what you'd said about it. I'm not surprised to find it on the 'not recommended list'. I'm going to argue to get this book off the list. Wish me luck - last time I tried to get a book (Knots on a Counting Rope,) off the shelves of the school library (for the lower elementary) I was met with disdain and ridicule. The best I got was agreement not to see it at the Book Fair but mostly I was being 'unreasonable'. I hope to have better luck this time. I'm putting together my case - bolstered by this info and the info from Oyate.

Thank you for all you do.

Anonymous said...

I have read this book for many years with my fifth grade students. I always presented it from both perspectives. I think the book is an excellent example, using Matt, to demonstrate the stereotypes of the white settlers. It also shows misperceptions Native Americans may have had of the white settlers. And with any stereotype, not everyone in a group of people act a certain way. I also think nobody is talking about the growth Matt does throughout the book. He comes to realize how wrong he was about Attean and his tribe. It is very much like the movie Dances With Wolves in a kid version. Matt thinks their ceremonial dance is clownish only until he experiences for himself how powerful and meaningful it is. That doesn't mean the dance is good because a white boy danced it; it means it's good because he finally understood it.

I am very grateful for the information I learned from this review. I will continue to use this book because I can teach many valuable lessons about history, perspective, stereotypes and character growth - both Attean and Matt.

Anonymous said...

I think Matt's feelings towards Attean are not really hatred--he feels rivalry. Attean is clearly Matt's superior in survival skills, which gives Matt a sense of inferiority and thus a need to convince himself that he is superior to Attean in some ways. Thus Matt's admiration of Attean is mixed with denegration, just as his desire to be closer to Attena is mixed with the fear of rejection. In some ways, their dynamic resembles sibling rivalry.

The author describes things as they appear through Matt's eyes, which is not the same as the author's viewpoint. She does not mean for everything Matt does or thinks to be the "right" and admirable thing. Over the course of the book, Matt does make progress in overcoming his prejudices.

Overall, the book has a hopeful message that it is possible for people to learn from one another despite external cultural barriers and internal barriers too. It is about the possibility of frienship.

For what it is worth, my father read the story to me and my brother because we are descendents of the real Matt's sister. While working on the Penobscot Nation, I met a man with the last name Attean who read the book aloud to his children for the same reason, because they are descendents of the real Attean. He smiled at the parallel. I did too.

Mom of Twins said...

I have a stack of books ready to read to my 7 year old twins over the next few weeks, and "Sign of the Beaver" is one of them. I read it in the fourth grade, not noticing the negative connotations at the time. I was never ignorant to the treatment of settlers and explorers towards Native Americans. My father taught high school American Studies and English and taught us kids about Christopher Columbus as he was, a savage, violent man, and about the trail of tears. We listened to Buffy Saint Marie before I could read chapter books. Anyway, before I read this to my children, I wanted to familiarize myself with the textual/historical inconsistencies. I will read them the book, but I will also edit or rewrite parts that are inaccurate. If they portray Matt as an ignorant boy in his views, than that should stay. He would be ignorant. He would learn how very wrong his learned views of Native Americans were. Is it wrong to edit "classic" or published literature? I don't think so... Not when reading it to first graders who are very smart and intuitive. I know they will read books like this in school or on their own in the future and then I will explain how I "fixed" the story to be more truthful at best, and they will be old enough at that point to see where Spears went very wrong in parts of her book.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this book to my almost 9 year old grandson. I agree with the later comments in this list of comments. The stereotypes that were portrayed, were stereotypes held by the Euro-Americans of that time, which Matt also held. But through the relationship Matt had with Attean, those stereotypes were dismantled. Eventually, Matt was even able to recognize his family's part in essentially stealing the land that had been the source of sustenance for the Tribal people living there. Yet, the land now represented sustenance for Matt and his family.

How does a person, or a family, or a nation come to terms with the extreme injustice of one group benefiting from the murderous oppression of the people who had lived in this land thousands of years prior to the arrival of Western Europeans? Children (and adults and nations) need to think about that; do something about that.

This book can be an excellent source of discussion about these issues. Perhaps, through discussion even more stereotypes can be dismantled. Perhaps we can learn to celebrate diversity, rather than fear it. Perhaps we can work toward eliminating the stark disparities, set in motion with the arrival of the Western Europeans. Disparities that continue today. It would be a shame to remove "Sign of the Beaver" from our youths' reading lists.

My last thought is a question. Has the book, "Robinson Caruso", been removed from library shelves, or youths' reading lists? Perhaps it has; I truly do not know. It was brilliant of E.G. Speare to juxtapose "Robinson Caruso" against the content of the "Sign of the Beaver" to use as a point of thought-provoking comparison among differing stereotypes and the damages they inflict.