Thursday, September 01, 2016

Use of "Columbus discovered America" leads to book being recalled

Those who follow developments specific to depictions of Native and People of Color in children's and young adult literature know that A Birthday Cake for George Washington and When We Was Fierce were recalled days after or before their release dates.

Another book is being recalled, days before its release. In this case, the book is Sky Blue Water. The error in it will be revised. The existing 4000 books are being recalled by the publisher.

On August 28th, author Shannon Gibney, posted a photo of the page in the forthcoming Sky Blue Water that said "Christopher Columbus discovered America" on her Facebook page. She has a story in the book, which is comprised of several short stories for children in grades 4-7.

Gibney wrote to the editors about that line and a few days later, the University of Minnesota Press (it is the publisher) decided to recall the book. It is not going away forever--which is good to know--because it has some terrific writers in it, including Marcie Rendon. She's an enrolled member of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation. Marcie's story is "Worry and Wonder." It is about a child whose placement is being deliberated under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

That "Columbus discovered America" line is in the Foreword, written by Kevin Kling. Here's the paragraph (Kindle Locations 119-122):
From the Boundary Waters you can canoe all the way to Hudson Bay. Some believe that the Vikings navigated from the Atlantic Ocean to Minnesota more than a hundred years before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. It’s possible we paddled the same waters, fought the same currents.
That sentence is jarring. And yet, there it is.... uttered by Kling, and okayed by the editors... I think Kling and the editors are probably aghast with that line. How, they're probably wondering did it get there? Kling is probably wondering why he put those words in that foreword, and, the editors are wondering why they didn't notice them and ask him to revisit them.* Obviously, that line is so much a part of the American psyche that it gets said, written, and then, not heard and not seen by millions of people as a problem. An error.

I'm glad that the press is recalling the book so they can correct that error.  Here's a passage from the The Star Tribune's article:
"In addition to the recall and reprint, we are going to examine how this error got by the editorial safeguards we have in place to prevent such inaccuracies from making their way into our published books," Hamilton said.

Hamilton is the assistant director of marketing.

University of Minnesota Press publishes some excellent books that I recommend to writers, editors, and book reviewers. Kim TallBear's Native American DNA and Jean O'Brian's First and Lasting are two examples. Books like this can help people learn things that aren't taught in schools--be that elementary school or a college classroom.

Thanks, Shannon Gibney, for speaking up about that line. I think it is another example of the ways that social media can be used to effect change.

I wonder what the revised Foreword will be? Will that line simply be cut? Or, will the editors use its appearance as an opportunity to tell readers about their collective blindness to the line in the first place?

High profile writers have stories in the collection. Will they, in their speaking engagements, talk about that error? I hope so! Only by having a lot of discussion of the problem will we get to a place where errors like that won't happen again.

Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers, edited by Jay D. Peterson and Collette A. Morgan, was scheduled for release on September 15th.

*At 5:28 PM on Sept 1, 2016, Ms. Hamilton wrote to tell me the following:
The phrase "discovered the Americas" was introduced in editing and not written by Kevin Kling. It was introduced by an editor and was missed in review by the U of MN Press.
Kevin’s original sentence was: "It is believed that the Vikings navigated from the Atlantic to Minnesota over a hundred years before Columbus.” 
It was changed to: "Some believe that the Vikings navigated from the Atlantic Ocean to Minnesota more than a hundred years before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.”
She said they deeply regret that phrase, because it is inaccurate and out of step with the book. They are taking immediate steps to correct it. 


Stephanie Theban said...

I agree that we should stop saying that Columbus discovered America. He clearly did not discover a land that was free of Native Peoples. It was the home of Native Peoples long before he arrived. The use of "discovery" in this sense has come to mean that the place simply was not important and did not exist before Europeans arrived, which is objectively wrong. But I do think that sometimes, we are limiting the meaning of words. People use the word discover to mean that they have found something that is new to them. You hear people and see reviews that say that someone has discovered a new restaurant. The restaurant was there; the writer or speaker just didn't know about it, so it is a new discovery to that person.

With the use of "Columbus discovered America" there has been a lot of discussion about the connotation of this phrase, so we would hope that people would avoid using it.

I recently saw a post (here I think) that objected to the use of "occupying" in a sentence like, "When the Europeans arrived they found that Indians were already occupying the land." The objection is that "occupying" refers to an outside entity or force occupying the land of another. It does mean that in some contexts, but in the example I have given, I think it simply means that Native Peoples were living there. It means that the Native Peoples were there when the Europeans arrived, which is certainly accurate.

It seems that it may weaken the argument to insist that words can only have one meaning when they, in fact, have many meanings. I'm all in favor of using language that is respectful, but let's consider whether the word was used in a way that was respectful, instead of assuming that it was not.

Unknown said...

I respectfully disagree, Stephanie. I think you're excusing the sentiments behind phrases like "Columbus discovered America" and "Indians occupying the land" on a technicality. It's unrealistic to think that the phrase "Columbus discovered America" doesn't contribute to the white-dominant narrative that erases Native people in thousands of different ways, large and small. Can I go into the Apple store and help myself to a new phone without paying and then be like "HEY I DISCOVERED THE IPHONE 6!" and get off on the same technicality?

Stephanie Theban said...

I agree with you regarding the phrase "Columbus discovered America," as I stated in my original comment. I find the connotation of "occupying the land" to be less clear. I respect your opinion, but I just don't know that most people think "occupying" refers to an occupying force, rather than living there.

The difference, I think, is knowing what the connotation is, rather than the meaning. Because I was interested in this discussion, I looked up connotation and found that it has this meaning: "Connotation refers to a meaning that is implied by a word apart from the thing which it describes explicitly. Words carry cultural and emotional associations or meanings in addition to their literal meanings or denotations." I didn't look it up because I thought you needed to understand it. I looked it up because I wanted to make sure I understood it properly.

The connotation of "Columbus discovered America" is that it was there for the taking and he took it, consistent with your iPhone example.

Perhaps I am wrong and everyone thinks that to occupy a space means to occupy it against the will of the true owners. I see a distinction between the two, but I will continue to think about it and I will certainly avoid the usage myself.

You have just helped me to learn about a connotation that I didn't know about. Perhaps because I don't come from the same place culturally, it does not have the same connotation for me. But now that I know that it has that connotation for others, I will work to make sure I don't use it.

I don't mean to be argumentative or disrespectful. I'm trying to think through a lot of these issues.

Truth Unleashed said...

When I hear the word "occupy," my first thought is the same as Stephanie's, that it's basically synonymous with "reside in." Most of the contexts in which I see or use forms of "occupy" refer to a wholly benign and legitimate presence: junk mail addressed to "OCCUPANT," a Maximum Occupancy sign on the wall of a restaurant, calling out "Occupied!" when I'm using the toilet and someone starts to open the door. In some of these cases, the use of the word emphasizes the legitimacy of possession (you don't get to open mail that was sent to my address or barge in on me in the bathroom). Outside of a military or similar context, I don't think "occupy" is either intended or perceived by the vast majority of native English speakers to have an aggressive or invasive connotation.

Unknown said...

Here's what I don't like about "occupying": it obscures the existence of nations. You wouldn't say that the French were "occupying" the land of France, as though that was mutable and hey, maybe next year the Spanish will occupy France. You'd just say that here you are in France, and the people of France are the French.


Unknown said...

I agree with Veronica, and I think that another problem with a phrase like "when the Europeans arrived, they found Native people occupying the land" is that it erases the violence of much of European/Native relationships. European people "arrive", Native people "occupy". Would we say "when the Nazis arrived, they found Jewish people already occupying the neighborhood"?
I think a term like "invaded" should replace "arrived".