Saturday, June 9, 2007

Marlene Carvell II, as promised

Sweetgrass Basket did not take me very long to read at all. I picked it up on Thursday and finished it last night. It was excellent, though, and I can understand why it won several awards and is on the recommended reading list of a group that monitors Native American portrayals in literature.

Sweetgrass Basket is the tale of sisters, Mattie and Sarah Tarbell. Mattie and Sarah are Mohawk Nation and their mother has passed away. They were sent to Carlisle Industrial Indian School, which was a real place that existed in the early 20th century.

The white man's war on the Indians did not end with the signing of the peace treaty (incidentally, the document with the most signatures of leaders known to human history -- over 500 -- and held in the collections of a museum I used to work for). Although the shooting part of it may have been over, the beliefs that they posed some kind of a threat did not die so easily. These "Indian schools" were an attempted antidote to the threat. The overt idea behind them was that the schools would teach them useful skills needed to function in society. the real intent was to extinguish group identity and culture. Members of the same tribe were separated. They were not allowed to speak their native languages, nor were they allowed to have any "Indian things" from home. They worked extremely hard. Although truancy laws were a few years in the future and the average white child may have left school after 8th grade, some people stayed at these schools into their 20s, especially those who were older when they came to the schools.

None of this is in the book, exactly. Rather, it tells through Mattie and Sarah's eyes (in alternating chapters, and in Carvell's trademark free verse style) their experiences at the school. Mattie is the elder of the two, and although she is an immediate social and academic success, she has a hard time following the rigid, military-style rules at the school and constantly finds herself in trouble. Sarah is better at doing as she's told, but struggles with her classes and takes longer to fit in. Neither girl is happy -- none of the students seem happy -- but they are fitting in well enough when a small incident gets blown out of proportion by the truly sadistic school head, and leads ultimately to tragedy.

My copy of the book was signed by the author. She signed it: "Children everywhere have stories that need to be told" and I think that sums up this book very well. One thing that angers me about the story of the Native American and the white is that we whites have never been honest about it, the same way we have about slavery. You learn about slavery and civil rights in grade school, but often have to wait until college to learn about the attempted extermination of Native American tribes. You hear vague allusions to the whites and the Indians not getting along terribly well, but they never really sit you down and tell you why. And as a result, Native American reservations are among the most desolate places in the country. Name any social problem: alcoholism, suicide, teenage pregnancy, unemployment and you'll always find it at a much higher rate on a reservation than in the general population. Carvell's books would be excellent tools for bringing the story into a classroom. They are both classified as "young adult" and both very readable and as enjoyable as is decent given the subject matter.