Friday, June 12, 2020

Book Review: Native American History for Kids by Karen Bush Gibson

I see the book Native American History for Kids (by Karen Bush Gibson) recommended often. The author has written several books about Native Americans that are somewhat factually incorrect. This is reason enough for me to say no to this book. However, if you want to know why based on the merits of the book itself, here is what I think:

To start off, I appreciate the fact that this author has made efforts to get things correct. It is more correct than many books I see in regards to several things, one being relations between Native nations and Europeans/Americans. You can tell that she took the time to research things very well. That said, since it is written from a non-Native perspective…it still misses the mark in quite a few areas. My biggest issue with this book is that it focuses almost entirely on what happened to Native Americans because of Europeans/Americans rather than Native American peoples and cultures themselves. It is framed around Europeans/Americans more than it is around Native nations. I think the information about actual Native peoples, nations, cultures, histories (independent of Europeans) is rather slim versus the information about what Europeans did to us. It is basically a book of “then this happened to them, and then this happened to them…” and so on.

Another issue is that, while yes she took great lengths to get things right, she still gets several things wrong. This is why reading Native authors is better, not because we can’t get things wrong, but because we know our stories and our peoples better than anyone else. The types of things we might get wrong are not the basics, as is often the case with non-Native authored books. I also think the writing level and maturity of information is much more geared toward upper elementary and middle grades rather than “kids,” which is typically taken to mean younger ages. The Preface does a good job explaining that we are all different and much of the information written about us and learned about us is wrong.

Chapter 1 opens with a story about a white person, already the focus is on their perspective. It gets things pretty right about the ancient societies here, but only touches on a couple. It does acknowledge that many theories about our origins are possibly wrong and not the only explanations, like the Clovis theory and the Bering Strait theory. I do like that. I do not like the “pictographs” activity at all, though. It way over simplifies the concept and inappropriately asks kids to write their own by calling their family or friend groups their “tribes.”

Chapter 2 is all about Europeans and how they interacted with various Native nations rather than about the nations themselves. It is very euro-centric even though the information is mostly correct. It also goes into detail about religious beliefs, which non-Native authors really shouldn’t write about. It is up to our own peoples and spiritual leaders and nations to decide what religious information we want people to know and what we don’t want them to know. It protects our beliefs from exploitation and disappearance and maintains their integrity. It is highly inappropriate for this author to go into that.

Chapter 3 is also centered on Europeans and how they interacted with Native nations rather than the other way around. It has a rather inaccurate tale about Pocahontas under the guise of it being the “true story” and also gets Thanksgiving very wrong. I don’t like the “build a Native American community” activity, as many times our traditional houses are not just homes, but also can be spiritual. This activity doesn’t take that into account and trivializes the cultural/spiritual aspects of these lodges. Much of the other information in here is pretty good, though.

Chapter 4 is pretty good really, for the context of the time period it’s about.

Chapter 5 is mostly pretty good, but I think it glosses over the intentional killing of bison as an act of genocide (to starve people) somewhat in the buffalo section. The “create a totem pole” activity is quite inappropriate. Totem Poles are very specific cultural items that carry great significance. They were also illegal until 1951 and the work to repatriate stolen poles is ongoing. Trivializing them as “more or less address markers” and turning them into a craft is not okay.

Chapter 6 is all gloom and doom. Granted, that time in our histories was very gloom and doom. While the truth needs to be told (like this chapter certainly does), I think it is important to also learn about our resilience and survival. This chapter doesn’t really do that. When Natives write about these events in our past, many writers also focus on overcoming as a people. When Native authors write about these events, they often then bring it back around to how we’ve overcome those things.

Chapter 7 is really pretty good. It includes a lot of great info about Native activism in the late 20th century, talks about AIM, Leonard Peltier, Alcatraz, etc. It then talks about important legislation for us through the 1990s. Its way more than most books talk about even for high school and I think that’s pretty great. Although the information about Alaska Natives is skimpy.

Chapter 8 is also pretty good. It has info about more modern legislation, rights issues, and even talks about why “playing indian” and stereotypes are harmful. I like the profiles of famous Natives from current times. However it does get some things about powwows incorrect.

Overall the book isn’t horrible, but it is not good either. It is much better than a lot of the books I review. It still isn’t what I think of as a great book for learning about us, and it definitely has its issues. Some of the crafts/activities are inappropriate. Learning this information from a Native perspective is vital to learning about us. It also ensures that the crafts and activities suggested aren’t inappropriate and are culturally sensitive. Using Native authors is preferred over this book.

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