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Juneau Schools Swap Out Controversial History Books for Natives Who Actually Lived It

Four controversial books were taken out of the Juneau school district curriculum after being deemed inaccurate regarding Native history.
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Four books dealing with Native history that were supposed to be introduced during the spring semester have been taken off the elementary-school curriculum in Juneau in the wake of concerns about their accuracy and sensitivity.

The books, published by McGraw-Hill Education, were removed after a number of people in the community said the volumes’ fictional depiction of events such as boarding schools and the Trail of Tears did not do the tragedies justice, and in fact distorted them. The materials were scheduled to be part of a weeklong unit in the fourth-grade language arts curriculum, Alaska Dispatch News said.

While copies of the four books—The Visit; Our Teacher, the Hero, and Continuing On, by Terry Miller Shannon, plus History Detectives, by Sandy McKay—will remain at the district office for perusal, they will be accompanied by a seven-page critique by Paul Berg, a curriculum developer and cultural specialist at the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation. His report played a major role in the 7–2 vote by a school-district committee to remove the materials.

Even as a new curriculum is developed in collaboration with Goldbelt and the Sealaska Heritage Institute to fill the void, Juneau Schools Superintendent Mark Miller said this affords a unique opportunity to interact with people who actually lived the events. At his December 4 press conference announcing the decision, he was accompanied by three Native elders who had attended boarding schools, Alaska Public Radio station KTOO reported.

“If there is a positive outcome to this issue, it is that we now have a window of instructional time dedicated to the telling and understanding of the Native experience,” Miller said in a statement announcing the decision. “We have the opportunity to experience living history before it is gone forever. We have the opportunity to tell the stories of those who lived the boarding school experience in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. We have the opportunity to learn about the burial grounds on which Gastineau School was built and the removal of Native housing from the area that is now Sandy Beach. Our place is history, and we should take this opportunity to teach our children about it before the lessons are lost forever.”

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He went on to say that human history and experience, both Native and non-Native, is varied and a complex mixture of light and dark.

“This is the opportunity to teach our students that history is not either good or bad, but a mix of both,” he said. “There is not one ‘Native Experience,’ there are thousands, each one uniquely different. I am calling on the community to come together with the school district to document and tell your truth, our students will be the better for it. Come into our classrooms to help us to teach our students about our local history.”

Debbie Reese, enrolled Nambe Pueblo and author of the website American Indians in Children’s Literature, expressed relief at the decision. Native children, she told ICTMN, deserve to see their lives and experiences affirmed just as non-Native students do, and these books do not fulfill that edict. Doing so becomes even more important, she said, given the higher school-dropout rate among Native students as compared to other groups.

“Though some charge efforts to get that affirmation for Native children as ‘censorship,’ I view it as parents and communities who want their children to have the same affirmations that non-Native children receive by default,” Reese told Indian Country Today Media Network via e-mail. “A glaring problem with the four books that have been set aside is that they are all set in the past. Where are the stories about Native peoples of the present day?”

McGraw-Hill Education media relations director Brian Belardi said the publisher had seen the books as being age-appropriate for fourth graders and that they served as jumping-off points for discussion, not the final word, Alaska Dispatch News said.

McGraw-Hill Education was "respectful of the feelings of the Native Alaskan communities and mindful of sensitive issues raised in these books,” Belardi wrote in an e-mail quoted by Alaska Dispatch News. “We are confident they are appropriate at a fourth-grade level as starting points for discussion around the experience of Native Americans."