Monday, March 14, 2016

Social studies resource and critical thinking

I know that Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson will be a very useful resources for the grade 6 social studies topic, Historical Modes of Democracy taught in Alberta schools.

This is a retelling based mostly on Robertson’s recollection of being told this story as a child on the Six Nations of the Grand River reservation in Ontario by a revered elder. The elder was “a wisdom-keeper who knows the stories and the old ways.”[from the author’s note]  The elder impressed young Robbie greatly and inspired him to want to become a storyteller, too.

The story is about Hiawatha, a Mohawk, who loses everything he loves to the evil chief, Tadodaho from the Onondaga nation. He is grieving the loss of his family and village and plotting revenge when a stranger arrives and convinces him to travel with him, the Peacemaker, to the other tribes of the region to convince them to desist from fighting each other. The Peacemaker wants people (tribes) to “come together as one body, one mind, and one heart. Peace, power, and righteousness shall be the new way.” The Peacemaker needs Hiawatha’s powerful, articulate speaking voice to help spread the word.

Their message is appreciated by the other tribes but their fear of Tadodaho makes them question the wisdom of not fighting such a powerful enemy. The message of love and forgiveness over violence is one that is supported by the women of each tribe. Eventually, consensus is reached and the four nations (Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca and Oneida) paddle together to confront Chief Tadodaho. Eventually, Tadodaho is overcome through strong medicine and forgiveness and the Five Nations are united.

“The Peacemaker placed his fist over his heart, and again I spoke. ‘As Five Nations, we will bring forth peace, power, and righteousness.  The women of our tribes shall appoint the Chiefs, and as one people we shall live under the protection of the Great Law. All voices will be heard as we now vote before action is taken.”
Here is the general outcome as laid out in the Alberta Education program of studies:
Students will demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of the democratic principles exemplified by ancient Athens and the Iroquois Confederacy.
Here are more specific outcomes focused on the Iroquois Confederacy:
6.2.4 analyze the structure and functions of the Iroquois Confederacy by exploring and reflecting upon the following questions and issues:
• How was the Iroquois Confederacy structured?• What was the role and status of women within the Iroquois Confederacy?• What are the advantages and disadvantages of consensus as a decision-making model for government?• How did the Six Nations use the consensus-building process?• How did the Wampum Belt address collective identity?• How did the social structure of the Iroquois Confederacy impact its political structure?• To what extent did the decision-making process within the Iroquois Confederacy reflect democratic ideals of equity and fairness? 

So, you see, it’s a good fit.

Illustrated by David Shannon, the art work is lush and bold drawing our attention on every page. In spite of liking the book, this is where I become a little wary.

As far as I can determine, David Shannon is not of native descent. His familiarity with the indigenous peoples making up the Iroquois Confederacy will be limited. No illustrator’s notes were included to explain his decisions and I’m left to imagine his work is likely based on research and other observations he’s possibly made on his own. This leaves his depictions open to inaccuracies.  I’m not familiar enough with any aboriginal group to feel comfortable discerning how accurately they have been portrayed. I did an internet search and found images similar to those of David Shannon’s but again I have to question whether these images are accurate and where they’ve come from. I’m not saying there are inaccuracies in the illustrations in this picture book just that I, as a non-native, don’t know enough to figure this out.  I do know, however that it is crucial for the representations to accurately portray the culture of indigenous peoples. 

It’s a tricky business using children’s literature like this picture book.

The author's notes, acknowledgements and references are illuminating about Robertson's experiences as a boy and understanding of the story. (There is a CD also with a recording of Robbie Robertson about Hiawatha.)

All I can say is try to do your best in finding those books that speak authentically to aboriginal experiences and these are best told with their own voices. Do your own research; try and ask those who would know better about discrepancies in the values expressed or culture illustrated; and finally, try to use many sources and representations to allow students to do some of their own questioning and investigating, too.  Being a critical reader is important and this book will, besides supplementing content allow for readers to exercise our analytic abilities. 


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