By: Carol Gaab
In twenty years of publishing, we have always focused on creating materials that accomplish our mission.
TRANSFORM WORLD LANGUAGE EDUCATION THROUGH ACQUISITION-DRIVEN MATERIALS AND TEACHER TRAINING.
INSPIRE AND EMPOWER ALL PEOPLE TO ACQUIRE LANGUAGE(S) AND UNDERSTAND CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES THROUGH A VARIETY OF RESOURCES THAT ARE ABSOLUTELY COMPELLING, 100% ENJOYABLE, EQUITABLE, COMPREHENSIBLE AND NATURALLY CONDUCIVE TO DEVELOPING FLUENCY.
CREATE A NATION OF GLOBALLY-MINDED AND COMMUNICATIVELY- AND CULTURALLY-COMPETENT INDIVIDUALS AS WE OURSELVES CONTINUALLY REFLECT AND SELF EVALUATE, STRIVING TO UNDERSTAND CULTURES AND INTER-CULTURAL RELATIONSHIPS IN ORDER TO EFFECTIVELY PROMOTE DIVERSITY.
We have our mission in mind every time we publish a story, and we definitely had that in mind when we decided to publish ‘Paralelo 38: La 4a Expedicion de John C. Frémont. The story, written by Rene Frazee, was inspired by her great grandfather who was a historian and had written a book about the history of the expedition, using Tedd McNabb’s diary as one of his sources. Renee is also a history buff, and she loves to discuss and talk about history in her Spanish classroom. She came to Fluency Matters with her story in hopes to have another historical read available for her students.
The story is written from the 14-year-old’s perspective as he ventures off with his uncle on his first expedition. He had never traveled west and could only base his emotions and perspectives on RUMORS. The story begins as they set out across the plains. It’s all very exciting to Ted, and if TV were in existence at the time of the expedition, we would have said he had a “Hollywood” perspective of what the expedition was going to be like.
He expresses his fears about Native Americans, wild animals, and outlaws, all of which are based on RUMORS. He asks his uncle about the Native Americans, very obviously from HIS white perspective: “Will they cause problems for us?” His uncle responds: “It depends on if they question our intentions.” … “They want to protect their territory and their families. Generally, they just want to make some trades with us.”
Is that exchange racist? YES! Of course it is! There is nothing that was not racist about white colonizers plowing through the Native American’s land, stealing, and pillaging! The story was not published to glorify colonization. Quite the contrary, it depicts how callous and despicable one man’s pride, greed and disregard for human life was the cause of suffering and death for many.
The expedition was Ted’s first experience seeing another race, and like many people, he bases his fears on RUMORS, not on personal experience. He had never had the opportunity to establish a relationship with someone of a different race. Ted is quite surprised when a Kiowa boy approaches him and asks him to make a trade. Ted says “no,” and the next day the Kiowa boy is back, not to trade but to establish a relationship. Ted and Buffalo Hunter quickly develop a friendship and a few days later they depart, but not before Buffalo Hunter gives him a gift that will later save his life.
Beyond those references to Ted’s experiences with and changed perspectives about Native Americans, Ted also described the following acts of kindness and courage by several Native American nations:
WARNING: If you want to read the story, you may not want to read the next four points to avoid spoiling the story.
1.) The Kiowa and Comanche provided them with supplies that helped them survive treacherous conditions.
2.) The Ute people found them lost and starving to death. They led them back to their camp, and fed them, giving them food from their own scarce winter rations.
3.) The Ute also sent one of their own young men along with white men from the expedition to help them find their way to Taos.
4.) The white men ultimately arrived at a Mexican village where the people not only welcomed them, but provided them with food and shelter for numerous days.
It’s never easy to write a story that revolves around racism, and it’s especially difficult when it reveals an ugly side to our roots and our history. Due to the sensitive nature of the story, we reached out to Wade Blevins, Cherokee Nation language technology specialist and a member of the state of Oklahoma State Department of Education and Advisory team, to help us depict historical scenes and dialogues with sensitivity and accuracy.
We asked him hard questions– at least hard for us. We asked him if he found the word “unwelcoming” offensive or insensitive, a word that was used in the description on the back of the book to describe Native Americans in the 1800s.
His response was:
“I actually think that unwelcoming indigenous people would actually be the most accurate description of the climate of relations at the time!”
It was so wonderful to learn from Wade. He welcomed our questions and taught us much more than we could have learned on our own. We learned that Kiowa teen boys and men had long hair worn down or in one or two braids. Their hair was only cut short (above shoulders) if they were in mourning. We learned that Native American men did not wear pants in the 1800s, wearing leggings under a long blanket or tunic. Native American men did not start wearing pants until the 1900s… when the U.S. government forced them to. Once I got over my shock and reflected on the sadness I felt about what it must have felt like to be forced to dress like the very people who stole and pillaged your land, I drew in a breath and studied the illustrations, making sure we depicted the Native Americans as authentically as we could.
There are some that will find the story too controversial to put on their FVR book shelves, and we understand and respect that. Indeed, there are many things in our history that are offensive. We published the story because one of the many benefits of learning about history– even if it’s the ugly truth– is that we can learn and grow so that we never repeat it.
When asked if the story was racist, Wade responded in his usual honest and insightful way:
“Of course it is racist. This is based on an account that was written in the 1800s… but the wording used is an accurate portrayal of natives at the time. To me, this account is an excellent opportunity to open a discussion about these things. How were natives portrayed by the media of the time? Why do you think so? What would the government gain by basically dehumanizing indigenous people?“
What we are learning is that the question really isn’t “Is this racist”, but rather “is this ANTI-racist?” The story alone is not, but the unit as a whole (story AND Teacher’s Guide) is intended to bring awareness to how racism and oppression in U.S. history have negatively impacted our country today. Background readings and discussion questions were created to bring about conscious awareness to cultural diversity and how establishing relationships with people from diverse cultures changes perspectives and benefits society.
Writing about important issues using minimal language is challenging! It is difficult to accurately communicate exactly what needs to be conveyed using low-level language. It’s a fine balance between making texts comprehensible and communicating messages adequately and accurately. Stepping beyond the fun and silly texts requires a bit of risk and persistence. We continue to strive to improve and are grateful to our community of educators who are committed to learning and growing with us. Together, we only get better.