The Winners Write the History (and Children’s) Books

The latest lineup of potty-time bathroom books includes Steven Kellogg’s beautifully illustrated Jonny Appleseed.  As a kid, I remember loving this book, and the other books of Kellogg’s we owned, which, like Jonny Appleseed, tended to focus on familiar tall tales of this country’s westward settlement like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.  As I read them now though, through the eyes of an adult, I can’t help but squirm in my skin as Johnny Appleseed is welcomed by smiling Mohawk Native Americans as he stands, ax in hand, over the giant tree he just felled to clear land for the coming settlers.  Or later, as he comforts a wolf wounded by an arrow, while the shadowy Native American looks for his prey, I can’t help but shake my head at the irony. 

Not to be Debbie Downer, but this is not how things went down.  By the time we were clearing land in the Ohio River Valley, word had sort of gotten around that we were not to be welcomed with open arms (funny how we still thought we would be as we planned the Iraq invasion).  ‘The winners write the history books’ as they say, and winner’s like to think of themselves as the good guys.  Children’s books are no different.  The lessons we learned about the Pilgrims around Thanksgiving always depicted the Native Americans as friendly and bearing food for the bumbling Pilgrims through their first winter.  While this is true, the teacher never really touched on how, we later gave them blankets infected with smallpox, forcibly relocated the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Nations from the Southeastern U.S. and marched them along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, and nearly eradicated bison from the Midwest by shooting them for sport from passing trains.  And Christopher Columbus is no different.  Same friendly “Indians,” but while the Arawaks paddled out to greet his ship with gifts, upon meeting them, Columbus, in his journal, noted how easy it would be to enslave the natives, which he did.

So what’s a parent to do in the face of our nation’s predilection to gloss over the violence of this country’s colonization?  Like Santa Clause, do you just go down the prescribed path and lie to your kids, leaving it up to some progressive high school teacher to tell them the truth later?  This is what happened to me.  In the eleventh grade our textbook for American Studies was Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and I remember feeling like I’d been lied to for years, not for my sake, but so that the adults around me could avoid feeling guilty.  Wouldn’t telling children the truth be better, and in line with the values like honesty and openness which we espouse?

Then again, genocide and slavery are pretty heavy bedtime story topics.  The avoidance of disturbing topics like these is, in part, what helps to preserve the framework that makes the construct of childhood innocence possible for adults to feel a need to protect.  I’ll speculate that this need of ours is the basis for the majority of the myths we tell to them.

But let’s say we did give it to them straight from an early age.  Wouldn’t it undermine many of the ideals we desperately try to instill during their early years?  How could we teach them that their comfortable lives can be traced back, in part, to how their white ancestors stole Native Americans’ land, were responsible for millions of their deaths, and later dishonored treaties with them and prohibited them from practicing their religion, while telling them to share, be tolerant and not hurt others?  It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch for an elementary school aged child to conclude that to get what you want you should become the schoolyard bully.

So how do we teach our children about the consequences of our place on this continent without delivering a crushing dose of reality that contradicts the values we hold in esteem?  If you’ve wrestled with this, I’d love to hear your experience.  My daughter is not yet two, and just recently surpassed our dog’s intelligence, so I’ve got some time before I introduce a revisionist history of the effects of European colonization on Native American cultures.  Still it’s a weighty topic, so I’d like to be prepared when she brings home a handout from kindergarten around Thanksgiving with a drawing of a smiling Plains Indian handing over an ear of corn to a pilgrim in a pointy hat.

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One thought on “The Winners Write the History (and Children’s) Books

  1. It’s a tough one! Nate is almost 6 and we went to a Huron village museum last year. I kinda just tell him about the culture of the people who were here first and then say the British and the French came. I think the war thing is for way later. I personally couldn’t handle all the “whys” if I started trying explain how things really went down. They think everyone in the world is still good. I am going to keep it that way as long as possible because the truth sucks.

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