Rewriting History: American Indians, Europeans, and an Oak Tree (Loudness in the Library Year Three, Part 3)
I did a double-take when I cracked open As An Oak Tree Grows*, a 2014 book that inaccurately reflects the history of European and Native American interactions. In the story, which traces the life of an oak tree (planted as an acorn by a young Native boy), the Native character simply disappears as the Europeans move in. Bank Street students, who participate in extensive curricula on unlearning Native stereotypes, immediately recognized this as problematic, because it erases the conflicts and violence that arose when Native people fought to defend their homes and land from colonial invasion. As one student noted,
“Because it’s a children’s book, they wanted to make it ‘nicer.’ ”
Working together, teachers and kids identified three primary areas of concern with As An Oak Tree Grows:
- The pictures show a lot of empty land, as if it was uninhabited; one wigwam appears in the first two pages, alongside a vast wilderness.
Where is the Native child’s community? The pictures send the message that the land was largely empty and there for the taking. Students said:
“If you don’t give kids the right images, they get the wrong ideas.”
“If kids don’t see other stories, they might think this is the truth.”
“These books shape a child’s mind.”
“The illustrations should show more of the truth.”
- Then, there’s this text:
Kids were puzzled because they knew that the larger story of Native/European interaction is one in which Europeans forcibly removed and/or killed huge portions of Native populations.
“‘The boy grew up and moved away’? That didn’t happen.”
“They were there first. It is very unlikely that the boy just moved away.”
A teacher asked: “Keeping in mind that this book is meant for young kids, how could we re-write this so that it would tell the truth?”
“They could have said ‘Europeans took his home’ instead of ‘The boy grew up and moved away.’”
“It could say ‘Different people came and forced the boy’s people out.’”
“It could say ‘Sadly, they were forced away.’”
- The next sentence reads:
The picture shows people, identifiably European by their clothing, houses, and skin tone, now occupying the land:
Together, teachers and kids revisited what we know about American history: that Native people in fact taught Europeans how to farm in North America, and that Europeans depended upon Native populations to provide food. If someone didn’t know these facts, they could get an incorrect message from this book. Kids said:
“It shows that people don’t think of Native Americans as farmers.”
“Instead of ‘Farmers now lived here’ it could say ‘Different farmers now lived here.’”
The kids were deeply troubled by these few pages in an otherwise-beautiful book. Our conversation turned to other examples of rewritten history that students recalled from books, movies, and TV. Examples included Peter Pan and the Little House on the Prairie series. One student mused:
“A lot of times kids’ books have the most stereotypical things, when in fact they should be the most honest.”
It was a sober conversation, and many of these 6th-graders left the room angry.
Tune in tomorrow for one last post, in which I reflect on this curriculum from a teacher’s point of view.
Update: Part 4 is up!
Check out our discussions from Year 1 of this curriculum here.
-Allie Jane Bruce
*Karas, G. Brian. As An Oak Tree Grows. New York, NY; Penguin, 2014.