NATIVE AMERICANS: PROJECTS, GAMES AND ACTIVITIES FOR GRADES K-3; Rubins, Diane Teitel; Troll Associates, (1994) 96 pp paperbound oversize, ISBN 0-8167-3268-X; Grades K-3; and NATIVE AMERICANS: ACTIVITIES FOR GRADES 4 -6, Adams, Barbara; Troll Associates (1994), 96 pp paperbound oversize, ISBN 0-8167-3334-1; Grades 4-6

These two books have exactly the same format (except that the one for older children includes a couple of legends with several lessons). Not only that, their content is similar for beginning and upper elementary grades. There's no distinction in difficulty levels, so the "Tlingit" section (4-6) would be a rehash for those unfortunate children who met it in grades K-3. Though there are different authors, both books are written in the same clunky, wooden style favored by educators -- generally some kind of experts -- who are borderline illiterate in the fashion taught in schools of education. These books are "reproducible pages" so the clunky writing and amateurish illustrations go directly to the young people.

In this series, there's a common format to each lesson: "Meet the (Tribename)" is followed for the younger kids by "A Day in the Life of a (Tribename) Child," followed by a variety of "activities" such as little word puzzles, dumbly easy mazes, then some activities, including some that were obviously never tried and won't work. For the older children, "A Day in the Life" is sometimes replaced by a "Read Aloud Tale" which is a dumbed-down version of a legend, taken from secondary sources that already simplified and condensed it. Other than the tribal designation, no credits are given for the legends' sources. Very heavy on rewritten (simplifying, removing color and life) from tales re-told by Joseph Bruchac, mostly from the "Keepers of the (Earth), (Animals) and (Life) books by Bruchac and Caduto, although a couple seem to have been cribbed from other Bruchac collections.

These books -- like many others of the same bad type -- present "tribes" as they supposedly existed before first contact with whites, in a deadly mish-mash of summary stereotypes. The presentation is always boring, with only slight variations: They lived in (X) type of housing, they wore (X) type of clothing. The men hunted/fished/were warriors. The women took care of kids/prepared food/did some kind of minor agriculture. The kids played, the girls helping the mommies, the boys imitating the daddies. Everybody loved everybody and everything. The tribes wandered around a lot (usually). This is all told in the past tense; Indians don't exist any more ya know.

Rarely, a bit of actual history is mentioned, for instance "Hundreds and hundreds of Mandan and people from other tribes died during several [smallpox] epidemics", but that happens only when whatever canned source these people once read so emphasized disasters caused by whites that these people couldn't avoid saying something. Generally, history stops in the middle of the simplistic and repetitive primitive.

Both books have objectionable craft activities that include making travesties of sacred masks. Kachina masks (from paper bags) "Meet the Hopis", and Mohawk False Face masks (called "frightening false faces") in K-3. In 4-6 ("Meet the Seneca") takes another whack at travesties of the sacred False Faces, and students can make buffalo masks and invent some kind of hopping around for the Mandan Buffalo calling dances, vanished now except for the paintings of Bodmer and Caitlin. Neither tribe wants to have its sacred regalia travestied this way, and the Haudenosee (Traditional council of the Iroquois) has issued a long policy statement about not exhibiting or photographing or replicating their sacred masks at all.

A few extra-awful features in each of these awful books: In the K-3 book, there's a startup map of North America which is the worst one I've ever seen prepared by an adult. It's obviously some kind of computer drawing, with very rough outlines, and non-geographical jags. Hudson's Bay opens (with a long, narrow neck) to the east, and Greenland is right on top of this opening, abutting the Maine, Nova Scotia, and Labrador Atlantic shores. What's even more objectionable is that the map purports to show "approximate areas when most members of the ten Native American tribes discussed in this book live today." This is done by placing little drawings of the purported housing types (in precontact days) very roughly where there are now reservations -- often off by a state or so (though the map is so distorted you actually couldn't lay on state boundaries).

This puts a Cherokee longhouse in what might be Oklahoma and so on, suggesting that tribes, when moved to reservations, continued to live in the pre-contact ways that in fact had long been changed. The Cherokee were dispossessed because they had developed their land, with white-style housing, community halls, boat landings and warehouses, a printing facility, schools. And of course farms. So it was much more attractive to invading whites than going out and clearing and developing uncleared land that the Cherokees and other tribes had ceded.

Also featured in the K-3 book is a "color this pic" of an alleged famed Nez Perce Chief Joseph, wearing the stereotyped war bonnet headdress, and resembling a 25 year-old white guy.

In the grades 4-6 book, a few notable low points (besides the sacred mask travesties): Vision quest -- "You're praying for a vision of an animal so you can capture its spirit and acquire its strength. Close your eyes. What do you see?" Write or draw whatever. In actuality, the prayers and self-sacrifice of fasting and thirst are for a helping vision. The idea of "capturing the spirit" of an animal is something Nuagers have thought up.

Among some of the craft-type activities there's simple weaving ("make a Navaho wall- hanging") that won't work, i.e. the preparation diagrams are wrong.

Then there's making paints from plant parts (where the author believes that flowers -- because they are colorful -- are used for dyes, and doesn't have a clue to the natural technology necessary for making and using plant dyes). Natural dyes are made from carefully prepared root and bark scrapings (different kinds of preparations for the different plants) all of which have to be dried for months before being used, generally in combination. None of these dyes will work for "paints" on real or imitation "buffalo skin picture autobiography". That was done with mixtures of animal fat and finely pulverized mineral pigments. Natural plant dyes, once correctly made, are set into cloth or yarn by long boiling, with mineral or organic additives to set the color.

For "Grinding corn the Native American Way" ("Meet the Pueblo"), teachers are told to use a wooden bowl for a metate and grind dried corn kernels. There is good reason why every tribe who raised corn ground its dried kernels on stone slabs or bowls. The kernels are very hard, grinding them in a wooden bowl you'll soon be grinding wood powder.

For "Making a drum" (out of a coffee can) teachers are told to use pieces of old inner tubes for the heads -- that's an activity that one used to see in books of this type around 1950. Car tires, bike tires, etc. have been tubeless for decades. In any event, this produces a sort of travesty of a drum. For making a rattle, the teacher is supposed to cut a hole in a gourd and scrape out the seeds. Presumably the gourds are already dried, because they're supposed to be soaked "in water for several hours" first. Actually, you clean out seeds and meat from a fresh gourd, dry it (for months), then insert the stones that rattle. Sometimes special stones, a prescribed number.

Then with their tin-can drum and non-rattling gourds, the kids can "perform the Friendship Dance". This is a little travesty where students "do a slow, shuffling step around a circle", with boys pulling girls in, then vice-versa. While a muffled whumping is coming from the tin-can and no sound from the unprepared gourd. There are friendship dances; the Menominee traditional one (taught them by visiting Lakota) involves an intricate dance pattern where dancers from each of 2 groups wind up shaking hands with each other. The story of this dance involves peacemaking efforts in order to present a united front to the white invaders. That's why the invaders' handshake ritual is incorporated.

In these crafts books we are presented with activities that won't work, as well as many that are travesties of Native arts and crafts, sprinkled with misinformation on Native history and geography, and dumbed-down legends.

--Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 1996 - 12:53:47 AM