Decision due soon on ‘distorted’ school texts depicting Native tragedies

The Juneau School District made copies of the controversial texts available for public review. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
The Juneau School District made copies of the controversial texts available for public review. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The Juneau School District will decide next week if four controversial texts will remain part of the elementary school curriculum.

Members and organizations of Juneau’s Alaska Native community raised concerns about texts depicting Alaska Native and Native American experiences, like boarding schools and the Trail of Tears. A cultural specialist calls the texts “inaccurate” and “distorted,” and a school district committee voted to remove the books from the classroom.

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Fourth and fifth grade teacher Shgen George remembers unpacking books for the new language arts curriculum a week before school started.

“I came across one and I was like, ‘Oh my, that’s not very good.’ And came across another one and went, ‘Oh my gosh, this is getting worse.’ And by the time I got to the fourth book, I was just shaking,” George says.

One of the readers called “Continuing On” follows a Cherokee boy named John as he, his family and thousands of other Cherokee are forced to leave their homeland, a tragedy known as the Trail of Tears.

In the story, John’s father says, “The long miserable journey and the hard times will make us stronger in the end.”

Another tells the story of a Native American girl in a boarding school. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the federal government split families and forced Native children into boarding schools to assimilate. The text describes some of the hardships, but glosses over the loss of cultural identity.

George says the texts are condescending and trivialize the true experiences of Native people.

“In our community, we deal with the effects of these every day now, still. With the boarding schools and trying to keep our language – those are directly related,” George says.

After George first drew attention to the texts in August, the school district’s Native Education Advisory Committee held public meetings filled with emotional testimony. The district also asked Paul Berg to assess the readings, which are part of McGraw-Hill’s Reading Wonders program. Berg is a former teacher and now works as a curriculum developer and cultural specialist at Goldbelt Heritage Foundation.

He says the author of “Continuing On” minimizes the emotional suffering of the boy who’s able to let go of his pain.

“The Trail of Tears was a death march. Twenty-five percent of the people who went on this march perished. This boy at the end of the march is a highly traumatized individual and the writer kind of ascribes to the school of pop psychology where you just get over it,” says Berg. “You don’t. It can take years to overcome and it has very severe effects.”

Berg reached out to the Cherokee Nation and representatives sent written comment listing inaccuracies in the text and called it “a poor choice for the classroom.”

Three of the four challenged readers are categorized as historical fiction, but Berg says they lean toward rewriting history.

“It’s called historical appropriation, when you take an historical event, important in the Native community and reinvent it, if you will,” Berg says.

Berg adds the community shouldn’t let national publishing companies like McGraw-Hill decide what children are reading.

“They are not the authority in reading. We are the professionals. We are the educators. We are the parents. We are the grandparents. We need to be the ones that make the actual decisions,” Berg says.

Berg’s report recommends discarding the publications and replacing them with locally developed materials from the Alaska Native perspective. The readers aren’t scheduled to be used until April.

Beverly Russell and Freda Westman of the Alaska Native Sisterhood gave public testimony supporting Paul Berg’s recommendations at a recent school board meeting. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Beverly Russell and Freda Westman of the Alaska Native Sisterhood gave public testimony supporting Paul Berg’s recommendations at a recent school board meeting. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

A district committee that reviewed the challenged material voted 7-2 to remove the four readers from the classroom. Ted Wilson, the district’s director of teaching and learning, voted to keep the texts.

“I recognize that the books don’t do a great job of telling the story. I did not see them as being as damaging as what other perspectives see them as being,” Wilson says.

He says another committee has already met to find alternative literature.

“Given the nature of these texts and the concerns that have been raised, it would be in the best interest of everybody to have identified and present in the classroom other texts to be used either in place of these or in concert with these texts,” Wilson says.

School board member Lisa Worl says the readers may not be ideal, but at least there’s finally acknowledgement and discussion of these hard issues.

“Whereas when I was a child, nothing. This is a difficult conversation, however I’m happy that finally there’s something, even if it’s lacking, so now we can improve upon it,” Worl says.

The superintendent will make a final decision on the controversial readers in early December.