Friday, January 25, 2013

Flat Stanley's Worldwide Adventures: The Mount Rushmore Calamity

In 1964, Jeff Brown introduced readers to a character named Flat Stanley:

Flat Stanley's name is actually Stanley Lambchop, but a bulletin board fell on him, turning him from a three-dimensional boy into a flat one. Much beloved, Flat Stanley evolved into a very popular project through which schoolchildren would make a Flat Stanley and mail it to friends and family in far off places.

A huge success, it also evolved into a series of early readers. Flat Stanley's Worldwide Adventures: The Mount Rushmore Calamity is one of those readers.

In it, Flat Stanley and his family go to Mount Rushmore. While there, they meet a tour guide's daughter. Her name is Calamity Jasper:

The interesting thing about Calamity Jasper is what she says about herself on page 48:

See? She is "part Lakota Sioux." In addition to knowing "useful things" about plants and hunting (can you say STEREOTYPE?), she knows how to send smoke signals (come on, say it again: STEREOTYPE). Course, because Stanley is FLAT, they use him as the blanket to send those smoke signals:

The stereotypes are bad, but there's more.

Look again at page 48 when Calamity tells us she's part Lakota Sioux. See the words "Gold Rush" in the previous sentence? Calamity Jasper is out looking for gold in a gold mine. A gold mine located in the Black Hills, and she is determined to get some of that gold for herself...

Let's consider what the Lakota Nation has on its website about the Black Hills:
In 1874 George Armstrong Custer led the U.S. Army Black Hills Expedition, which set out on July 2 from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, with orders to travel to the previously uncharted Black Hills of South Dakota. Its mission was to look for suitable locations for a fort, find a route to the southwest, and to investigate the potential for gold mining. His discovery of gold was made public and miners began migrating there illegally.

"Custer's florid descriptions of the mineral and timber resources of the Black Hills, and the land's suitability for grazing and cultivation ... received wide circulation, and had the effect of creating an intense popular demand for the 'opening' of the Hills for settlement. "Initially the U.S. military tried to turn away trespassing miners and settlers. Eventually President Grant, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Secretary of War, "decided that the military should make no further resistance to the occupation of the Black Hills by miners."These orders were to be enforced "quietly", and the President's decision was to remain "confidential."

As more settlers and gold miners invaded the Black Hills, the Government determined it had to acquire the land from the Sioux, and appointed a commission to negotiate the purchase. The negotiations failed, as the Sioux resisted giving up what they considered sacred land. The U.S. resorted to military force. They declared the Sioux Indians "hostile" for failing to obey an order to return from an off-reservation hunting expedition by a specific date, but in the dead of winter, overland travel was impossible.

The consequent military expedition to remove the Sioux from the Black Hills included an attack on a major encampment of several bands on the Little Bighorn River. Led by General Custer, the attack ended in the overwhelming victory of chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse over the 7th Cavalry Regiment, a conflict often called Custer's Last Stand.

In 1876 the U.S. Congress decided to open up the Black Hills to development and break up the Great Sioux Reservation. In 1877, it passed an act to make 7.7 million acres (31,000 km2) of the Black Hills available for sale to homesteaders and private interests. In 1889 Congress divided the remaining area of Great Sioux Reservation into five separate reservations and defined the boundaries of each in its Act of March 2, 1889, 25 Stat. 888.

With that history in mind, I think portraying a Lakota character as a gold miner is problematic.  

At the end of the book, there's a section called "What You Need to Know to Be a Black Hills Gold Miner." I'm guessing this information is what led the reviewer for School Library Journal to call the book "educational":
Native Americans have lived in the Black Hills for more than 9000 years. Some Lakota believe the Black Hills are the sacred center of the world.

The Black Hills Gold Rush began in 1874, when Colonel Custer led a thousand men into the western part of South Dakota to investigate reports that the area contained gold. That's the same Custer who later had his Last Stand against Sitting Bull at the Battle of Little Big Horn. 

One of the most famous cowgirls of the Black Hills was named Calamity Jane. She was a good friend of the famous lawman Wild Bill Hickock.

Gold was first discovered in the Black Hills just a few miles from where Mount Rushmore was later built.

Some would-be miners get tricked by "fools gold," which looks a lot like the real thing. If you want to tell the difference, try pressing your fingernail into the surface. If it leaves a small indent, you've found gold!

The heads on Mount Rushmore are as tall as a six-story building. If you matched them with bodies, the men with those heads would be three times as tall as the Statue of Liberty. 
Some of the individual items the reader needs to know to be a "Black Hills Gold Miner" are odd. Why would you tell the child that the Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota people?! You've just read a story about mining for gold... on sacred land? I don't get the logic. How would the story itself be different if the author included the sacred nature of that land within the story? Maybe the author would abandon the project. Maybe the author didn't write these last pages!

Though the reviewer for School Library Journal called this book "educational and fun," I disagree. Stereotypes are not fun, and I don't think the book is educational, either. Flat Stanley's Worldwide Adventures: The Mount Rushmore Calamity was published in 2009 by Harper. The author is Sara Pennypacker, and the illustrations are by Macky Pamintuan.

Update: Friday, January 25, 6:00 PM

You may be interested in Monumental Myths - a video about monuments, especially the last segment, which is about Mount Rushmore.


TVA said...

"Sacred land" means vastly different things to different people, I suspect.

Sandee said...

I think it means the same to all Lakota. Flat Stanley is shameful.

Anonymous said...

You really like to complain and look for problems, don't you? Maybe you should start reading books you think you're going to enjoy instead of reading books you think will have problems just so you can search out the problems.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Anonymous,

Surely you know that book reviewers and critics read widely, and that they don't like everything they read. I'm guessing you don't read AICL on a regular basis.

There are, in fact, quite a few books I enjoy, and I've written about them on AICL.

jpm said...

Also, Anonymous, a lot of people who care about accurate representations of Native people have had the experience of reading a book expecting a positive (or at worst neutral) experience, only to find embedded misinformation/disinformation/stereotypes about Native people. Sometimes it's really random. Those of us who want children to actually understand other human beings need not keep silent when we encounter problems - even when we haven't gone "looking for" them. But nothing's wrong with looking for problems, if we want to promote knowledge and understanding instead of mistaken ideas that lead to misunderstanding.