Monday, November 19, 2012

Christopher Columbus and student letters

The other day I got a large envelope in the mail from a children's publishing company I've written for. The editor wrote that a class in Arizona had sent her these student letters and whether or not I answered was up to me. I wrote back happily that I was always glad to get fan letters from kids and of course I would anwer.
Then I read the letters. They were not fan letters. These seventh graders are members of the Tohono O'odham Nation (I think a sub-group of Navajo) and they had read a book I did in 2002 on Christopher Columbus. Oh boy, did they take me to task. An example: Your book does not do a good job of representing the native perspective.  Or, "I want you to stop making fun of us Indians. We are not Indians. We are Native Americans." They were right, of course.
In 1987 Patricia Limerick, a groundbreaking historian, published Legacy of Conquest, the first book of the "new" history of the Americn West, the first to suggest that the history of the American West had been told as an Anglo man's story when there were so many other peoples involved--Native Americans, women, etc. By 2002 I am sure I knew better than to say Indian instead of Native American, so I could do nothing but apologize. I also know that I wrote the standard story of Columbus, and these bright, articulate students told me he was not a hero.
I wrote a letter of apology, saying they were right and I accepted their criticism. I did point out that Columbus did not make it far enough into the country to enslave and torture Native Americans of the Southwest but he opened the door for later conquerors. And I pointed out that this has been the unfortunate pattern of the world's history--strong invaders taking over weaker peoples. But that is no excuse.
I agreed with the students that a new book about Columbus needs to be written from the Native American point of view and even that perhaps some of their letters could be incoprorated. I wrote the teacher that it is obvious she is doing a great job, for her students are bright, thinking young people who do not simply accept what they read. I'll mail the letter tomorrow. I doubt it will make them feel a lot better.
The publisher agrees that a new book needs to be wirtten and promises me a crack at it if it happens. The whole subject opens up such a Pandora's box that it would be a difficult y/a book to write. But,  yes, I think I'd like to try. She of course made no promises and said the series the Columbus book as part of is going out of print.
This was a wonderful, if humiliating, experience for me. Hats off to the seventh graders at Baboquivari Middle School on the Tohono O'odham Reservation near Tucson--and a big black mark for me.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

People who want to re-write history is a bunch whom I particularly abhor. In my opinion you have nothing to apologize for, you wrote a story to entertain child and adult alike, it was written within the context of the time. If anyone needs to apologize is the teacher, who no doubt is trying to sound sooo well rounded with understanding of all the suffering in the world and second they need to apologize to these children who they keep persisting on treating them like victims.
Oh; By the way I’m a minority and once in your house you corrected me quite sternly, will you apologize to me? By the way I deserved it, and I actually like to tell the story of when Jaime’s mother yelled at me….

Judy Alter said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I was talking to Jamie about it, and we'd both like to know who you are and to reconnect. If I corrected you "sternly," I must have felt pretty comfortable with you. If I knew the situation, yes, I might apologize to you too. Yours is not the first response like this I've gotten and I realize the validity of what you say. We cannot change history at this point and as Elmer Kelton used to say about settlers who plowed up the prairie, ultimately causing the Dust Bowl, you can't blame Grandpa for what he didn't know. Some recognition of the Native American point of view should have been made, however. And it's true--history now debates whether Columbus was first or not. Please do reply to j.later@tcu.edu or find me on Facebook. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are correct, you may have felt comfortable with me; the part I left out, it's that by you been stern with me, it made me feel quite "welcomed"

Judy Alter said...

Please tell us who you are. We'd like to reconnect.