Brief Description: Twelve Native American school children present aspects of Native American history, specifically the detrimental affect of treaties with the U.S. goverment.
Geographical Setting: Alcatraz Island, California, Cherokee Nation, Colorado, Denver, Fort Berthold Reservation, Legend Lake, Mashpee and Wakeby Ponds, Massachusetts, Mescalero Apache Reservation, New Mexico, North America, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, San Francisco, United States, Washington, Washington DC, Wisconsin
Date Range: 1776-1870, modern
Original Publication: 2021
Suitable for Grades: 2-5th
Target Audience: Picture Book, Easy Reader, Chapter Book
Traci Sorell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, briefly introduces the harm done by the nascent United States from 1776 through 1870 to the indigenous nations via the roughly 400 treaties between them. This history is delivered via twelve student presentations for a modern-day Native American community school to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Pictured are mostly, but not exclusively, brown-skinned students and their parents as they arrive at the school and the students ready themselves for their individual presentations. Each student is assigned a topic, such as Assimilation, Economic Development, or Indian Child Welfare and Education. A reader might then expect to learn about the various ways that these some 400 treaties harmed the Native Americans. But this is not that book.
The ensuing two page spreads, one for each of the students, show presentation bullet points framed by engaging painted illustrations by Frané Lessac. At the bottom of each spread is the affirmative statement that “We are still here.” An example: the first topic, Assimilation, is accompanied by an illustration of brown-skinned children dressed in military style uniforms sitting before a white lady in mid 19th century dress. But with scant expository text we must guess at the meaning of the painting. Grown-up readers might know what is being depicted, but it isn’t until we reach the back matter in the last quarter of the book that we learn the painting is of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. And so it goes, roughly chronologically, through the twentieth century, ending with the Indigenous Peoples March in 2019. With each page, I puzzled with basic questions of who, what, where, and when?
But, indeed, the back matter is where all of the meat of this book sits. And tasty it is! Here it becomes clear that the theme of the book is not so much the detrimental nature of the original treaties signed between 1776 and the official end of “treaty making,” in 1870, or that conditions for the indigenous people were often exacerbated by continued meddling by the U.S. government well into the twentieth century. Sorell’s main point, revealed in the final pages, is the lack of coverage of Native American issues in modern day mainstream curricula. Hence the reminder, “We are still here.” In addition to the painting captions (which finally reveal the “who, what, where and when”), the back matter includes brief definitions of the twelve topics, a very useful timeline , a glossary, additional sources and an author’s afterword. These pages are arguably the most important in the book, but are aimed for an older audience and serve as a springboard for seeking out further information.
This book covers an important topic, one that is too often ignored in traditional school. Regrettably, the content is disorganized and thus confusing for the reader. As Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, too many modern picture books ostensibly aimed at a younger audience deal with topics that reflect a modern agenda but may not necessarily engage the target audience. I would be surprised if this book holds any interest for an early elementary school child. That is lamentable, given the importance of the topic. A fun “cookie” however: the author and illustrator (pictured together on the back dust jacket flap) are painted into one of the illustrations. Try to find them!