Juneau Schools Replace Controversial Texts With Book By First Nations Writer

“Shin-chi’s Canoe” by Nicola Campbell, “Not My Girl” and “When I Was Eight” both by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and “My Name is SEEPEETZA” by Shirley Sterling will be available in fourth grade classrooms and elementary school libraries. (KTOO file photo)
“Shin-chi’s Canoe” by Nicola Campbell, “Not My Girl” and “When I Was Eight” both by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and “My Name is SEEPEETZA” by Shirley Sterling will be available in fourth grade classrooms and elementary school libraries. (KTOO file photo)

The Juneau School District has chosen a book to replace the controversial texts it decided to remove from the fourth grade language arts curriculum.

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Last August, community members raised concerns about school texts depicting Alaska Native and Native American tragedies, including the boarding school experience in Alaska. The texts were called distorted, inaccurate and insensitive.

The district has chosen “Shin-chi’s Canoe” by Nicola Campbell.

Nicola Campbell is a First Nations writer from British Columbia. Her children’s book, “Shin-chi’s Canoe” depicts life in an Indian boarding school from a child’s perspective.

In the free-verse picture book, a character describes being punished for not understanding English – “They cut her long braids and threw/ them away/ and washed her head with kerosene.”

Paul Berg is a former teacher and a cultural specialist at Goldbelt Heritage Foundation. He says even though “Shin-chi’s Canoe” describes a boarding school in Canada, he thinks it’s accurate to what Alaska Natives experienced.

“The stories, the accounts that I’ve heard from elders have been pretty brutal treatment during the boarding school years in Alaska, so that would not be an exaggeration,” Berg says.

Berg evaluated the controversial texts, which are part of the McGraw-Hill Reading Wonders program. His report on the readers was the formal complaint that led to their removal. He said the texts misrepresented the historical reality and marginalized the experiences of the victims.

“Shin-chi’s Canoe” and other books the district is ordering for the classroom are interim solutions. When the superintendent decided to remove the McGraw-Hill readers, he said they’d be replaced by place-based material developed locally in partnership with Goldbelt Heritage.

Berg says this takes time and involves historical research, like interviewing elders. He says the local material will depict real events and share the cultural life of the Native community. He says it would be great to have material describing Tlingit cultural ceremonies that are still part of the Native community in Southeast.

“And just having an account of that even, for example, in the reading program would be a great cross-cultural sharing. But also, for the Native students, an affirmation in the school system of a part of their lifestyle,” Berg says.

Ted Wilson is the district’s director of teaching and learning. He says the district spent about $1,300 for 90 copies of “Shin-chi’s Canoe,” which will be distributed to fourth grade classrooms for use in small reading groups.

He says McGraw-Hill plans on replacing the four readers the Juneau School District removed with new readers at no cost.