Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"O is Ojibwa"

I'm in Ontario, Canada for a few days (Stratford, to be specific). Stopped in a bookstore, saw a book called M is for Maple: A Canadian Alphabet. Skimmed it quickly and found this on the 'O' page:

O is Ojibwa,
just one of the tribes
that spanned this vast country
before settlers arrived.
We're Canadians all,
but we must never forget
that our land was their land
and we owe them a debt.

I must say, the last three lines blew me away! I've never seen anything like that in an American children's book... Lynne Cheney's alphabet book is a good example. On the N page she writes something like "N is for Native Americans, who came here first."

M is for Maple, by Mike Ulmer, illustrated by Melanie Rose, was published in 2001. I'm sure a good many First Nations people object to Ulmer's "We're Canadians all." In fact, a good many First Nations people do not consider themselves Canadian at all.

Ulmer is a sports columnist for the Toronto Star. While his poem about the Ojibwa is problematic, it also opens the door for some interesting conversations. I wonder if any teachers are having conversations in their classrooms about that page?

UPDATE: August 7, 2008, 12:15 PM

I'm in the children's section of the Stratford Public Library. I've pulled a copy of M is for Maple. Here's more observations on each page. My remarks are in brackets.

A - Anne [of Green Gables]
B - Banting and Best [men who invented insulin] and Bonder [first Canadian woman to fly in space.'
C - Canada and Kim Campbell [page shows Kim Campbell, first female prime minister, in 1993]
D - Dionne Quints [quintuplets taken from their parents at birth in the 30s, lived till age 9 in a theme park where visitors paid to see them.]
E - "Eh" and Edmonton [page shows map of Canada]
F - Fox [Terry Fox lost a leg to cancer; aimed to run across the country to raise money for cancer research; died before he could finish; inspiration for "Terry Fox Runs" held ever year.]
G - Grain, and Governor General who "represents the English monarchy"
H - Hockey [kids shown; range of skin/hair color]
I - Islands [there are many in Canada] and, Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, where 27,000 people of Innu descent live. Illustration is a small island with a house, a dock, and a rowboat.]
J - Justice [illustration is of a Mountie; Royal Canadian Mounted Police formed in 1873 "to bring order to the West."]
K - Klondike [gold rush. I wonder if its history in Canada parallels that in California?]
L - Louisbourg [a place the French and British fought over; the text says the garrison "stands as evidence of France colonizing this land." No mention here of lands belonging to First Nations prior to British and French arrival.]
M - Maple and Montreal [the sidebar says "Long before the first Europeans arrived, Canada's aboriginal peoples had discovered the food properties of maple sap, which they gathered each spring." Note use of past tense.]
N - Northern Lights and Northern Dancer. [Text reads "N is for Northern, the great Northern lights, those mystery visions that light up our nights. The Innu believed that the lights showed a game being played by the Sky People in their heavenly domain." Again, note past tense. Northern Dancer is a racehorse.]
O - Ojibwa and Ottawa.
P - Oscar Peterson, a jazz pianist and Peggy's Cove, a town in Nova Scotia.
Q - Quebec [Sidebar says that since 1534, Quebec has existed as a unique and wonderful French culture. What about prior to 1534?]
R - Rocket [a hockey player named Rocket Richard]
S - Stampede [page is about the Calgary Stampede and rodeo]
T - Toronto and Trudeau
U - Underground railroad and Ukranians [illustration is of an African American family approaching a house, at night]
V - Victoria, which is "the most common name for cities and roads all named in her reign."
W - Wind and Winnipeg [illustration of two dark haired children in the wind]
X - the spot the last spike in the railroad that spanned the country
Y - Yoho, a national park.
Z - Zipper

Persons: Campbell, Dionne Quints, Peterson, Rocket, Trudeau
Things: Anne, Eh, Governor General, Hockey, Justice, Klondike, Maple, Northern Dancer, Northern Lights, zipper
Places: Edmonton, Islands, Iqaluit, Louisberg, Montreal, Peggy's Cove, Quebec, Victoria, Yoho, Toronto
Events: Stampede, X, Underground railroad
People: Ojibwe, Ukranians

It is a mixed bag, this book... Unusual recognition of First Nations peoples but a tendency to use past tense verbs. And as pointed out in the first comment (below), the view is white Canadian. That is the norm by which other things are presented. There seems to be an intent to present diversity of gender and gender roles (scientists, political leaders) and race (jazz musician is black).


secondwaver said...

I tripped over the pronouns in your quote, Debbie -- the author assumes that "we" means "we white Canadians, while "they" means Objiwa people.

And "owing a debt" understates the genocide and theft.

Would you use this book in a kindergarten classroom, Debbie? Well, I'm guessing you would not use it with children, without some discussion.

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, there's a lot packed in those four lines...

The book isn't an alphabet book meant for kindergarten children learning the alphabet. Instead, the author uses the alphabet as an organizer, to provide information about Canada. And yes, the assumption is that the readers are white Canadians.

I wouldn't use it in a kindergarten classroom. I didn't buy the book, and would likely bring it into a college-level children's lit class I teach, to talk about perspective, audience, power, privilege...

Heather York said...

FYI, under "I" that should be "Inuit", not "Innu". Innu territory is in north-eastern Québec and Labrador and they're an entirely different people than the Inuit.
In fact, the Innu people are related to Ojibwe (Anishinaabe). There is frequent confusion given how close the words are. Thanks!

Durable Goods said...

"Long before the first Europeans arrived, Canada's aboriginal peoples had discovered the food properties of maple sap, which they gathered each spring." This sentence would be better rewritten to indicate that the gathering continues to this day. But the way it's currently written forces the past tense in the last clause, which wouldn't make sense to simply change 'gathered' to 'gather'. This is one of those tough "note the past tense" situations, in that the sentence as written requires past tense. So while I understand the frustration and the reason you added "note the past tense", I'm on the fence as to whether or not this was an intentional slight.