Monday, March 08, 2010


Yesterday, I posted initial thoughts about Anne Rockwell's picture book biography of George Washington. I'm returning to it today, and will do so again later this week.

In yesterday's post I wrote about the word shared and how Rockwell uses it in two of her books, and I wrote about the persistence with which writers put American Indians in the same sentence as animals.

Today, I want to look at the opening paragraph in the book.
Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America. 
I'm focusing on that paragraph to show you how bias looks and what it teaches.

Anne Rockwell is a prolific writer. Though I've not studied her picture books for very young children, I can see by perusing the titles, that an early childhood teacher would use many of them.

How might her biography look if the focus was George Washington and his interactions with American Indians? That's not the book she wrote, so, some may deem it unfair to criticize her treatment of American Indians and American Indian history. Her first sentence is
Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America.  
Rockwell's book was published in 2008. Three hundred years ago puts the story in the year 1708. Rockwell is correct. At that point in time, there was no United States of America. Her next sentence could be "Instead, there were hundreds of Native Nations." But this is her next sentence:
Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America.
That sentence is also correct. In 1708, there were thirteen English colonies in North America. But! I'd insert an additional sentence, and, I'd rewrite her sentence so that the paragraph would say "Europeans who had fled Europe had come to North American and were occupying the lands that belonged to the Native Nations. These Europeans set up thirteen English colonies."

You following that? I'll put it here, in clean copy. Here's Rockwell's opening paragraph, followed by my rewrite of her opening paragraph:
Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America.

Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were hundreds of Native Nations. Europeans who had fled Europe had come to North America and were occupying lands that belonged to the Native Nations. These Europeans set up thirteen English colonies.
See the difference? See how she shapes the story with her choice of what to say and how to say it? She's telling this story from her point of view as an American. I'm revising her story from the point of view of an American Indian.  Her statements are factually true. So are mine.

But, she avoids telling her readers that the birth of the United States was complicated. She  keeps some information from her readers, and as we saw yesterday, she presents bears, wolves, and, American Indians as something George wasn't afraid of.

She's creating an image for her readers. In that image, American Indians are animal-like and living in the woods. The Indians she presents are not civilized, living in colonies like the Europeans.

But, her presentation is not true! American Indians were, in fact, highly developed, self-governing societies. They had leaders with whom Washington and the like had diplomatic negotiations with.  She is concealing that information from her readers. Being generous, I can say that she probably does not know she's doing that. It isn't a deliberate decision.

[Personal note: I grow weary and angry at myself for constantly saying "Native people were not primitive." But, that false idea is so well taught in America that it needs to be said again and again and again.]

Presenting Indians as primitive and uncivilized savages lets Rockwell (she's not the only person who does this. Most writers do it.) portray the Europeans as superior to the indigenous peoples, which ultimately works to say that Europeans were right to take Native lands as their own. I said as much when I critiqued Rockwell's book about Thanksgiving. She responded, saying that she never thought that, and that I was twisting her words. You could say that I am "reading between the lines."

Some might say I'm reading too much into what Rockwell says in that opening paragraph. Again, it isn't an isolated case. Most people who write about that period omit or inaccurately portray American Indians.  I think it is wrong to do so. What do you think?

Update, March 9, 6:30 AM: --- In a comment (see comments section), K pointed out that there are still hundreds of Native Nations and said my sentence suggests there are no longer any Native Nations. Regular readers of this site, and, readers with knowledge about American Indians know that there are, in the present day, hundreds of tribes.


Anonymous said...

What I think, Debbie, is that this is a great post. This is the best argument I have seen yet that a popular picture book can tilt a child's coalescing understanding of American history and Native Americans in a pejorative way. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

But how can you expect the Native perspective, when she's not Native? That's a tall order to have someone write from a different perspective. It's done, but it's not easy.

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous at 3:53,

Writers who present history as Rockwell did ask their readers to assume the same perspective as hers.

Either she's expecting Native readers to take her perspective, or, maybe she did not imagine a Native reader as she wrote the book.

K said...

I agree with everything you wrote, but I have a question about the second sentence in your rewrite. You wrote:

"Instead, there were hundreds of Native Nations."

But, there are still hundreds of Native Nations. Doesn't your sentence replace one fallacy (North America was unpopulated before Europeans came) with another (American Indians are people who lived in the past)?

Debbie Reese said...


Yes, you're right. Fixing it now. Of course, I do know that. It is a good example of what any one person knows, and how it shows up in his or her writing.

I make that point over and over again on this site and in my lectures. Thanks for point it out.

Blindian said...

Excellent post, Debbie. Anne is basically invoking the idea of terra nullius - that land belonging to no one and land belonging to indigenous people is the same. It's almost like literary genocide - erasing us from history just as the colonists wiped out over 90% of us. I wonder if Anne knows how the concept of terra nullius continues to hurt indigenous people all over the world -- even here in the land of "thirteen colonies."

Alison said...

I know many people who would agree that you're reading to much into it. But, I agree with YOU. Its not that you are reading into it, but pointing out that there is no acknowledgement that there were established civilizations here before the United States came into being and before the English came. Its as if with her opening statement, Rockwell is suggesting that North America was just a huge empty space before the English developed their colonies.

I was also shocked that Native Americans would be looked at as something to fear, common to a wild animal. While some might say that we're taking a children's book to seriously, if this is the message children are getting what types of assumptions about Native populations are they going to grow up with?

Lisa Sobieniak said...

Yes, And it's happening again to the indigenous people of the Amazon. If we don't remember/write about what happened in the past in an accurate way, representing the whole picture not just the dominant culture's view history repeats it's self over and over.