Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Judy Dow and Robette Dias Comment on SIGN OF THE BEAVER

Elizabeth George Speare's Sign of the Beaver has been discussed here several times...

On March 20th, 2007, I posted "Eighth Graders Analyze SIGN OF THE BEAVER." It is an essay submitted by Karen, a classroom teacher.  

On Wednesday, April 11, 2007, I posted a report on the book, put together by Students and Teachers Against Racism, located in Fairfield, Connecticut.

And then on Monday, October 22, 2007, I discussed the use of the word squaw in the book, in the context of the use of that word in larger societal contexts.

What I'm sharing today was submitted by Judy Dow and Robette Dias as a response to the Oct 2007 discussion of the word squaw. Rather than add it to that discussion, I'm featuring it as a stand-alone piece. I'm grateful to Judy and Robette for this contribution. Judy is Abenaki, and Robette is Karuk. They are on the board of Oyate.


After reading the concern and comments about the use of the word “Squaw” in The Sign of the Beaver we are concerned. It is our hopes that people don’t see this as the only thing wrong with this book because there are far too many other things wrong to just stop there. Judy's two children were forced to read this book in their fourth grade classes. She still has her son’s copy of the book filled with hand-drawn doodles and arrows. Some twenty years later we can visually see the disgust he must have felt as he read through this book.
Why is it books like this are used in a classroom to teach what the “period” was like as if it is an historical book? There is nothing historical about this book except that twenty-seven years later it is still being read in many classrooms and is on some mandatory reading lists.  Why is it some parents and some teachers protect their children and students from the truth? Is it because truths can be painful? So is this book to some. Why is it people feel they must hide the facts about genocide, acculturation, assimilation, and ethnocide? Is it because they are difficult topics for young people to understand? The proper words exist to teach these topics to young people. As educators of the generations that will be caring for us when we get older we believe it is important that we start using the proper words to teach these difficult topics. It can be done. We cannot continue to hide or protect our children from the truth. Let’s teach them instead to be seekers of the truths.

Here is one truth that wasn't discussed on Debbie’s blog posts, and, that is never even mentioned in The Sign of the Beaver.
In the year of 1755, a mere thirteen years before The Sign of the Beaver story takes place, the Indians of Norridgewock, Arresaguntacook, Weweenock, the St. Johns Tribes and other tribes inhabiting the Eastern and Northern Parts of New England had seen a bounty placed on their heads by His Majesty.
Details of the bounty proclamation are in a volume titled Documentary History of the State of Maine, published in 1908 by the Maine Historical Society.

The proclamation stated what colonists would be paid:

For every Male Indian Prisoner above the Age of Twelve Years, that shall be taken and brought to Boston, fifty pounds. 

For every Male Indian Scalp, brought in as Evidence of their being killed, forty Pounds.

For every Female Indian Prisoner, taken and brought in as aforesaid, and for every Male Indian Prisoner under the Age of Twelve Years, taken and brought in as aforesaid, Twenty-five Pounds.

For every Scalp of such Female Indian or Male Indian under twelve Years of Age, brought as Evidence of their being killed, as aforesaid, Twenty Pounds.

Signed on the twelfth day of June 1755 by His Excellency William Shirley, Esq.

Knowing this, how can someone possibly believe that Sign of the Beaver can be used to teach this “period” of history? This proclamation was never talked about or even alluded to in the book. Sign of the Beaver certainly never mentioned that the good people from Massachusetts Bay Colony were scalping Indian people for a bounty. This was the reality of the "period". The relationship as it is written in Sign of the Beaver between Matt and Attean would never have existed in a place such as Maine so soon after the above proclamation was written. Let us teach our children to seek the truth. 
Judy Dow (Abenaki)
Robette Dias (Karuk)

1 comment:

Jean Mendoza said...

Thanks, Judy Dow and Robette Dias, for bringing that information to light in this very public forum. One of the features of Debbie's blog that turns out to be most valuable for me is that Debbie and readers can revisit topics -- even from years ago -- with new information that has the potential to make our advocacy even more powerful. We can respond to (and use) what we know about.

To me, one the most troubling things about historical fiction for children (such as SotB) is that adults tend to assume that the "historical" details are inherently accurate, enabling them to justify classroom use of such books to teach about the times in which the books are (supposedly) set. All the while, the evidence mounts that even those historical fiction writers who have somehow managed to create reputations of being careful researchers are actually doing very little research -- or doing it very carelessly.

I'm not trying to say that historical fiction is the only problematic genre when it comes to obscuring the real history that Judy Dow and Robette Dias refer to. Writers of historical nonfiction for children also seem to avoid the "difficult look". Maybe the document Ms. Dow and Ms. Dias refer to is mentioned somewhere in children;s non-fiction, but I have not seen it (and would be glad to have someone show me that I'm wrong...)