This month marks 143 years since Chief Joseph, leader of the Pacific Northwest Indian tribe the Nez Percé, surrendered to a U.S. Army detachment in northern Montana. There the warrior famously declared, “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Others, however, are still eager to keep up the fight in the name of indigenous people. Demonstrators affiliated with the Miwok Tribe in San Rafael, California, on Oct. 13 vandalized and tore down yet another statue of Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra. Other ersatz torch-bearers of the cause include those municipalities, such as Baltimore and the District of Columbia, that have recently changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The first place I read of Chief Joseph’s famous speech was in a children’s biography of him, published more than 40 years ago by Troll Associates. It was one of many titles Troll released in the 1970s and 1980s honoring Native Americans such as Black Hawk, Osceola, Pocahontas, Pontiac, Sacagawea, Squanto, and Sitting Bull. I was fascinated by all things American Indian. These titles were part of my childhood library as an elementary student in the early 1990s. I still own them and have read them to my own grade-school children.
Troll’s canon of American biographies for kids extended far beyond Native American heroes. There were biographies honoring the best of baseball, such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jackie Robinson. Other books memorialized our nation’s first leaders: George Washington, John Adams, John Paul Jones, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. Still, others paid tribute to later great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and even actress and singer Pearl Bailey. No one could accuse Troll of not being inclusive of women or minorities.
Many Older Books Don’t Whitewash the Past
Also among Troll’s biographies of historical American figures was one of Christopher Columbus. “Of all the explorers in history, none made a greater contribution to the world than Christopher Columbus. He was more than an extraordinary navigator and sailor. Columbus was a man of vision and determination,” reads the introduction by author Rae Bains.
Bains also notes many of those who followed Columbus in colonizing the New World for Spain were greedy and “became angry and disillusioned.” And Columbus ultimately fell out of favor at the Spanish royal court and “died a deeply disappointed man.” The author might not indulge the reader in the brutal details of Spanish colonization, but this portrayal is far from saccharine.
Bains’s biography of Columbus certainly doesn’t employ the absurd and erroneous assertions we find in contemporary portrayals of the explorer. “Native Hawaiian advocate” Lopaka Purdy in a recent Washington Post article claims, “Columbus should be considered the progenitor of white supremacy. Let us remember him for that. … Columbus is famous because he was a thief. That was his impact.”
Purdy should also consider Columbus’s purposes and contributions. As for the anachronistic charge that Columbus is the “progenitor of white supremacy,” one might as well charge Alexander the Great with inventing imperialism or Genghis Khan with toxic masculinity.
The difference between Troll’s and today’s portrayals of American history is that the former actually tried to tell a coherent, inclusive narrative about our nation, one that sought to find unifying themes among a diverse and disparate set of characters. Native American heroes such as Osceola and Sitting Bull are rightly lauded for their love of their people and their homes, and for courageously resisting what was often unjust, unsympathetic, and racist attacks on their way of life.
We celebrate Washington and Jefferson because they made unparalleled contributions to American politics and history. We honor Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks because they represent our nation’s continued struggle to right past wrongs and fully realize the unprecedented vision of our founding political documents.
Sympathy unites all of these children’s biographies. The biography of Robert E. Lee, also by Bains, largely focuses on his childhood, which was marked by great familial upheaval. His father, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, despite being a Revolutionary War hero and a Virginia politician, was incompetent and negligent, spent time in debtors’ prison, and for a time lived in the West Indies. He died on the return journey to Virginia when Robert was 11. “Robert had a difficult childhood,” observed Bains, who devoted far more attention to Lee’s resilience and virtue at West Point and in the U.S. military than his role as the Confederacy’s greatest general.
Kids Need to Learn the Complexities of History
Eliciting empathy in the child reader is an essential educational objective because it is required for both civic and family responsibility. As this year proves, our political climate is in sore need of more of it. Learning of the struggles, failures, hopes, and achievements of historical Americans engenders that virtue. Limiting Columbus and Lee or Washington and Jefferson to a simplistic, binary narrative of white, patriarchal oppression not only doesn’t do their stories justice, but it also short-circuits the maturation process via reductionist tropes.
Telling kids that their history is full of racist patriarchs fosters cynicism and a Manichean, self-destructive understanding of the past in which some people, namely oppressors, are evil and to be censured; others, namely the oppressed, are good and to be praised. It is this kind of blinkered, perverse thinking that provokes the continued desecration and destruction of our national heritage. Unable to see ourselves in our collective past, we tear it down with impunity.
What Troll sought to accomplish with its American biography series was far more inclusive than what today’s social studies curricula seek to sell children. The publisher, which filed for bankruptcy in 2003, believed there was enough room in the telling of American history for both Christopher Columbus and Pontiac, Robert E. Lee, and Rosa Parks. Certainly, all four possessed manifestations of courage, leadership, brilliance, and conscience. That their stories represented different and even conflicting visions of America reveals the complex, sometimes morally nebulous nature of our national narrative, rather than obscures it, as do the 1619 Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Hard History.”
Forty years ago, as my children’s book collection proves, grade-school history pedagogy offered a diverse and inclusive narrative about our national past. It integrated biographies of men and women from a remarkable variety of backgrounds, be they rich or poor, black, white, or indigenous.
As I became older, I sensed the tension between their stories. James Monroe was a brave soldier and great statesman, but his hostile, expansionist policies ultimately incited a bloody, desperate revolt by Osceola to protect his people. That we are capable of deeming both men worthy of America’s honor evinces what is best about our national history, not what is worst.