Children's Books

PEOPLE OF THE BREAKING DAY, written and illustrated by Marcia Sewall; New York: Atheneum, 1990; 48 pages, oversize, hardcover; $14.95; ISBN 0-689-31407-8

I don't know why Marcia Sewall chose to write this book in first person plural ("We are Wampanoags, People of the Breaking Day..."). This is entirely a product of library research, although there are still some Wampanoags around. Those who want to assert that identity have mostly had to relearn language and culture from books, just as Sewall, not a Wampanoag, did.

If the editorial or royal "we" is to stand in for a tribe that has mostly vanished, I should think she might have found a bit of space for how that happened: King Philip's war (Metacom, son of Massasoit). Wampanoags were really a confederacy of tribes, and it was Metacom's own Daddy who made the big mistake of befriending the Plymouth Pilgrim colony. Metacom himself craftily bided his time, signing treaties and stalling around, while building an intertribal alliance, which unfortunately didn't include the Iroquois, Pequots, Nantics, Sakonnets, or Massachusetts -- very likely it was the disciplined and unified Iroquois whose opposition was decisive. Metacom himself was betrayed by an Indian informer for the whites, murdered, dismembered and parts of his body taken as trophies. His wife and son were sold into slavery for 30 shillings each. The outcome of the war was "the virtual extermination of the Wampanoag, Nipmuc and Narraganset tribes" and "the cruel pattern of racial conflict had now been firmly established in the New World," says Atlas of the North American Indian. Substitute "genocide" for "racial conflict" there and I'll say that too.

The idyllic, untouched life depicted in Swall's book is just a few years before this tragedy occurred, because "Our great sachem is Massasoit" (Metacom's father) Sewall says. "Wamsutta, Massasoit's son, one day shall lead our people." And since his name also isn't so well known as "King Philip" (who makes all the American history books, usually the name Metacom isn't mentioned), kids and teachers won't realize what's going on here, or when. Wamsutta was summoned before colonial officials for questioning, and died shortly thereafter of what the Indians thought was poisoning. So his younger brother Metacom became the last sachem in the period of this near exterminative defeat of the New England Native allied forces. The book's time-frame is (by historical reasoning, nothing of this is in the book) sometime in the middle 1660's; Massasoit is still sachem, Wamsutta hasn't been poisoned yet. The last war is coming: 1675.

But plenty had already been happening throughout New England. The big slaughter of the sleeping Pequot village at Mystic, Connecticut, had occurred in 1637. Massachusetts Bay colony officials had ordered punitive expeditions and various troops and irregulars were marching around on their own, as were ship captains with on-board troops given Indian duty shore leaves. Land acquisition frauds were proceeding apace. Traditional Indians didn't like the missionary zeal to convert the heathens, and the "Praying Indian" towns found they weren't safe against white rampages either. Whenever Indians committed or were accused of committing some alleged infractions of colonial law -- such as Puritan 'blue laws' not working on Sundays, dress codes -- they were dragged before colonial courts.

By this time old Massasoit realizes his boyhood friendly help to a scraggly little group of poor, incompetent whites has led to their multiplication like cockroaches overrunning the land.

The idyllic picture Sewall presents under the name of "we, us" is therefore false, knowingly false in view of the fact she's read the same books I have for her research, and must be aware of what's going on in this time frame historically. No Indian in the area was that ignorant of what was going on. It was a continuing and expanding disaster, and everyone could see that.

Sewall may have picked the time frame because if any earlier generations -- actual precontact times -- had been selected, she would know no names to serve as characters, "our sachem", and there would be no books she could research. Everything -- this idyllic age - - would have ben the same, but there would be no footnotes she could cite, should anyone ask.

Well. Clambakes, hunting, making medicine out of water lily roots -- wups, water lily roots are eaten probably by the Wampanoags, too -- playing games with neighbors, etc. etc. And she ends her book with a customary funeral rites description:

"Those who survive us will blacken their faces and mourn and leave our house empty forever, never to mention our name again. So it has been. So it will always be. Aque'ne [peace]."

Ironic ending, deprived of its irony, its meaning, by Sewall's removal of the Wampanoag people from the context of this pivotal point in their history, falsely portrayed as a time of peace and ignorance of what was shortly to come, by someone claiming grammatically ("We") to be one of the dead.

Let's suppose the author was trying to be subtly ironic. Though she seems (at the end) merely to be describing customary funerary practices, she may mean readers to take note of the rapidly-approaching genocide, the irony of "Peace" as a last word here. It's a metaphor for the funeral of a people. If so, she has been too subtle. Although some social studies books do mention "King Philip's War" it gets half a sentence. Elmentary teachers, parents, and certainly kids, aren't going to know any of the history that is the missing context here, they couldn't figure the time frame.

It could have been done artistically, by a framing teller: an old, old lady -- one of the few survivors, who also remembers the pre-contact age the book depicts. She was (say) Massasoit's aunt. "We" then would be herself, younger, and her ghosts, her memories. Just to make sure, keep the same paintings but make all the people slightly transparent on the backgrounds. They aren't just memories, they are ghosts, enacting a murdered way of life. As we come to the last 2-page spread, funeral, the whole thing -- the scene -- fades transparent, and the "now" of real events that led to Metacom's war starts to show through. Several more pages carry it to its conclusion, including the old lady -- much younger --left for dead in a massacred village; Metacom, betrayed, his body parts nailed up on the courthouse. Then you still have to provide teachers and parents with a end-pages chalk-talk -- dates, events, the progression, the conclusion, some kind of simple outline, little maps, easy concepts.

History is not taught in American schools; we have social studies. A true book about the past (including true fiction, true poetry) therefore must carry its basic foundational historic structure with it, into the intellectual, moral, and ethical vacuum that is American education.

If Sewall intended irony -- something of the meaning I just alteratively depicted with framing golden-age teller, ghosts, reality leaking through memory, etc. -- nobody will geddit. I can see it myself only by extending the utmost good faith to the book, assuming subtleties I do not think this author has. So my "utmost good faith" toward this book is like that which the Northwest Ordinance extended to "the Indians." You can look that one up.

--Paula Giese

File: ch75

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

Last Updated: Sunday, August 18, 1996 - 7:22:15 AM