Sunday, April 02, 2023

NOT RECOMMENDED: "California Native American Tribes" series by Mary Null Boulé

If your library has a copy of one of the 26 books in the "California Native American Tribes" book series, get it off the shelf. Let's take a look at it. My hope is that you will see it ought to be weeded, immediately. 

The series is written by Mary Null Boulé. They came out in 1992, and were published by Merryant Publishers. 

The books are similar. They begin with a section of "General Information" that starts out with:
Out of Asia, many thousands of years ago, came Wanderers. Some historians think they were the first people to set foot on our western hemisphere. These Wanderers had walked, step by step, onto our part of the earth while hunting and gathering food. They probably never even knew they had moved from one continent to another as they made their way across a land bridge, a narrow strip of land between Siberia and what is now Russia, and the state of Alaska. 

Historians do not know exactly how long ago the Wanderers might have crossed the land bridge. Some of them say 35,000 years ago. ...

Those Wanderers who made their way to California were very lucky, indeed. California was a land with good weather most of the year and was filled with plenty of plant and animal foods for them to eat. 

Most people remember "the land bridge." But most people do not realize that it is a theory. Boulé gestures to it being a theory when she says "Some historians think..." but the rest of the paragraphs present that theory as if it is a fact. It is not a fact! 

Recently I was in the San Marcos, California area for a workshop. The main presenter was Nicole Myers-Lim, director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa, California. She began her remarks by saying that nearly every fourth grade textbook incorporates the Bering Strait Doctrine into its content on California Indian history. There are several other, more recent theories, about how humans came to exist on the continents known as North and South America. 

If you're a teacher or parent who has access to a history textbook being used right now in your school, take a look. How does it present that theory? 

As I page through the books in the California Native American Tribes series, I see text and sketches that make me cringe: 
Not only did the California tribes speak different languages, but their members also differed in size. Some tribes were very tall, almost six feet tall. The shortest people came from the Yuki tribe which had territory in what is now Mendocino County. They measured only about 5'2" tall. All Native Americans, regardless of size, had strong, straight black hair and dark brown eyes. 
That's just one example. Through and through, the text and illustrations feel like grotesque anthropology books that suggest Native people no longer exist. The Boulé books are riddled with past tense verbs. They look and feel like dioramas that museums, like the University of Michigan's Museum of Natural History, are abandoning. Here's an excerpt from the article:

What may have been once an effective means to portray how artifacts were used in context of early Native American civilization has become inexpedient, often evoking pejorative connotations, and sometimes fostering perceptions of Indians as “frozen in time,” said Amy Harris, director of the University of Michigan’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History. 

In early January, 14 dioramas at the museum will be taken from public viewing and placed in storage. Until then, Harris said the dioramas are a catalyst for a broader discussion about the role of museums, and the proper portrayal of Native Americans, the only people relegated to be “presented” in natural history museums. 

“We were concerned that we were leaving the impression that Native Americans are extinct, just like the dinosaurs on the second floor,” said Harris, who, since 2000 has met regularly with a range of constituents, including U-M faculty, students and Native Americans around the state. The goal was to gauge the effectiveness of exhibits. Harris soon found out the dioramas were offensive and perpetuated negative attitudes. 

Some of you may cringe, too, reading the paragraph from the Boulé book, but you might be saying 'well, that's what they thought back then' when the series came out in 1992.

I urge you to revisit that justification. Who is 'they' in that way of thinking? That justification suggests such things no longer happen. But the thing is, books with that sort of thing come out, today, in 2023. And I see the Boulé books on library lists of recommended books, today! If you're using them or recommending them, stop! They're completely unacceptable. The paragraphs from the University of Michigan's director can help you think more critically about books -- old or new -- that have a land bridge theory or frozen-in-the past depictions of Native people.