Tuesday, May 15, 2012


At his blog, Matt Sakiestewa Gilbert offered a sneak peak at the cover of his new book The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue, due out in the fall of 2012.

The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue is not a children's book, but books like it are a must-read for people who work in children's literature. Given the growing body of children's and young adult books about boarding schools for American Indian children, critics of children's literature must know what the schools were like in order to accurately review books set in boarding schools.

In those schools, the goal was to "Christianize and civilize" American Indians, or, to use another phrase used to describe the schools, "to kill the Indian and save the man." The cover of The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue brilliantly demonstrates the import of the curriculum:

The children in the photo are shown reading Peter's Family, a basal reader published by Scott, Foresman in the 1930s. Here's some inside pages from a teachers guide (source for the pages is Etsy bookseller PalabrasdeMaria). I wonder if Scott, Foresman thought Native children would be amongst the audience for their books?

On this page, the text on the right has the word "Help." We can interpret this page in at least two ways. Combined with the illustrations on the left, it suggests that this page is about how children ought to help out at home. That would mean it is didactic or instructional, a "how to be a good kid" sort of thing. Or, we could use today's metaphor of literature as a mirror and could read the page as a reflection of (White) children and what they do. (These early readers did not include children who weren't White.) Although the children shown in the book don't look like the child on the cover of The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue, I bet that child knew all about helping out at home.

Part of the goal to "civilize" American Indians meant that they ought to move to cities where they could be Americanized and ride trains and buses or drive their own cars to their places of work. That idea became a federal policy in the 1950s with the Relocation programs by which Native families were moved to urban areas. This page of Peter's Family shows that work meant being a dentist, working at a gas station, as a lumberjack, or as a pilot. 

The public perception might have been that American Indians didn't do anything at all, or, that they were hunters with nothing left to hunt. The fact is, Native men were statesmen and diplomats who signed treaties with their European and U.S. counterparts. They were doctors, too. A good case in point is Carlos Montezuma, a Yavapai man who became a doctor and invented the mentholatum we know today as "Vicks". And, American Indians were pilots in WWII.

I look forward to Matt's book. Maybe the cover is a clue that one chapter will be about basal readers or the curriculum. The full title is The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images from Sherman Institute. Sherman is in California and the school itself is still in operation. One of Matt's coauthors is Lorene Sisquoc. She's the curator of the school's museum. You might want to spend some time at the museum' website: Sherman Indian Museum.


Matt Sakiestewa Gilbert said...

Thanks for sharing this with your readers! I wrote a little more about the cover photo on my original blog post.

boarding schools said...

What I am wondering about is what happens to these children after they graduate? How do they transition to functioning in an often chaotic world? Does the school train to that end? Thanks for the share!

Jean Mendoza said...

Congratulations, Matt! I look forward to reading your new book! Thanks for posting about it, Debbie.