Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sign of the Beaver Reading Guide and Resources

Sign of the Beaver is one of those books that (like Indian in the cupboard) has won awards for the  tale of survival told by Elizabeth George Speare, but is argued to be un-enlightened in regard to its treatment of its American Indian characters.  Despite its critique, it is one of those stories that has become a classic and is still on elementary reading lists.  I must say, it is a compelling tale.  As a homeschooling mother, I have more choice as to what goes on my daughter's reading lists.  However, the school cooperative still has some say in the matter as well.  I still have not presented the book to Alice, but just finished reading it and am writing this in case we do complete a study of this book.

It is important to note that Elizabeth George Speare, like myself, was obviously sympathetic to American Indians, but perhaps not as well educated on the subject as would be preferable for someone writing a novel (or in my case, a blog) that will expose others to information shared on the subject.  There are some wonderful lessons within the story about learning about "others" and how similar they really are.  However, in it, the American Indians that are depicted do use "Tonto speak" and wear the stereo-typical "Indian garb."  There are passages that are clearly racist - even if only through naivete.  Additionally, Mrs. Speare never specifies an actual historic tribe to which the main characters belong.  While they are most likely Penobscot based on their dress, location and language, the story never really does specify.  Attean, the main American Indian character, epitomizes the "Nature Aware Native" stereotype.  After finishing my pre-read of the book, I looked up the book on American Indians in Children's Literature - You may want to read this critique of the book from the Students and Teachers Against Racism posted there before getting started to help alert you to problem areas within the book.

To counter-act these stereo types, while still reading the book, it would be wise to take a look at the American Indians tribes mentioned in the book and what their traditional dress really looked like, language really included, and how they operated on a day to day basis.  Especially with Sign of the Beaver, you'll want to take a close look at gender roles.  The way gender roles are depicted in Sign of the Beaver insinuates that the Women work very hard while all the men do is hunt and play games - this is a stereotype.  Maine Indian Tribes and Languages gives a good over-view and links to activities for learning about the four major tribes in Maine at the time of European settlement.  The character Ben, also mentions the Iroquois.  To explain the "Tonto Speak," we'll discuss how difficult it can be to speak in a second language and talk about how funny Matt must have sounded to the American Indians that help him when he tried to speak in their language.

If we wind up using the book, I plan on having Alice highlight areas that may stem from a white bias.  We will use it as a study on bias as well as a lesson in how our shared history of enmity still haunts us to this day.  However, for kids to identify the bias, they first must be exposed to literature without the bias in it.  When my mother was trained as a bank teller, the way she was taught to identify counterfeit bills, was to count as many real bills as possible during the training.  As she counted them, she was feeling them as well as seeing them to the point that anything out of the ordinary would stand out because it didn't fit what she was so used to seeing.  Likewise, children need exposure to literature without stereotypes and biases in order to identify the literature that does contain those stereotypes and biases.  These books are recommended as good starting points before doing any analysis for bias in books like The Sign of the Beaver.  I is not for Indian has good questions to ask oneself as you read in order to check for bias.

Just For Fun

These activities may be useful whether you read the book or not, just as fun things to do with your elementary school student as part of a study of the period in history when many people (Frontier Settler AND American Indian) had to be much closer to nature than we do today just to survive or when American Indians and Frontiersmen were encountering each-other frequently.

As the chapters are fairly short, I chose NOT to do a special activity for every chapter (that can often become overkill anyway).  However, you will find a few activities to do alongside your reading here if you wish to use them. 

Chapter Two

At the end of chapter two (as well as elsewhere in the book), sounds Matt hears in nature are listed very briefly.  If you would like to hear some of the sounds Matt heard, here are appropriate links to get you there.

Great Horned Owl (Lots of options)
Trumpeting of Canadian Goose and Trumpeter Swan

Learn the calls of some of the night creatures common to your area (or a State or National Park you are headed to in the next month or two).  Then, plan to get up before the sun, or stay up long after sunset one night and listen to the morning or evening chorus.  You'll need to turn off flashlights and other lighting and be ready to be quiet and still to get the most out of your experience.

Morning Chorus
One of the best ways to really enjoy the sounds of nature is to sleep a little and then get up before sunrise.  Bring hot cocoa (but sip it silently and move slowly).  Bring lots of blankets to wrap yourself in and pick a spot to sit quietly.  Be seated and silent about 15-20 minutes before dawn.  I know it is really hard to sit completely silent and nearly still for a long time, but if  you manage it, you are in for a treat.  As the birds awake they call to each-other claiming their territory and if you are quiet and still enough you'll not only hear their beautiful cacophony, but see lots of birds and maybe a few other creatures too.

Evening Chorus
If you life near a wetland, pond, or calm stream, (particularly in the Midwest and Eastern United States) you can also go out at twilight and sit very still and listen to the night choir of the amphibians at the pond - frogs don't really say ribbit-ribbit (at least, that isn't all they say).  You'll need to pick your seat a little before sunset and then sit very still and very quiet for them to come out and get started.  While you listen, watch the sky for bats and owls!  Not many people take the time to go out at night and notice them - you'll be one of the few that can say you've seen these night critters in the wild if you are lucky enough to spot one.

Chapter 4 and 5

Experience Matt's food predicament.  Spend an entire day eating raw (this first link will take you to a description of what it is and how to eat raw healthfully).  Eating raw means nothing processed and only raw.  To be more like Matt, add to this, using no honey (this second link will take you to a blog about a person who experimented with eating raw for a month and wrote about it).   To make things a bit more like Matt, you COULD roast some foods still, but they have to start out raw in your hands.  You can't eat anything with flour, sugar, vegetable oils or other such items.  You might even check out this blog about eating only what grows here in the states, A Week of Indigenous Eating.  The week of indigenous eating is much more varied than what Matt went through, but it may offer up some recipe ideas for any diet that one could use during a week of eating non-processed foods. 

Chapter 10

Of course if you have the means and the location, you could spend a day fishing.  However, this activity is about learning a skill that can help pass long hours with little to do, AND help in making tools like Attean's fish-hook.  Try Whittling (to reduce gradually or carve with a knife).  If you've read the Kaya books, you will have also seen Two Hawks learn to carve a flute (no simple feat, let me tell you!)  At The Art of Manliness, you can learn the basics of whittling.  Most importantly, keep safety rules in mind AND remember that dull knives are actually more dangerous so take care of your tool as well.  For all the little girls out there - sorry about the title, the reality is, when considering traditional gender roles, whittling was something considered to be for the men (in white society anyway).  However, just because it was once seen that way, doesn't mean it has to remain that way.  Whittling is a useful skill and a fun craft no matter who you are.

Chapter 12

Try your hand at archery.  If you can't go to a range, or have access to the "real thing,"  You can try making your own.

If you choose to make your own bow, you'll simply need a long piece of PVC you can bend into a bowed shape.
  1. Use a drill to cut a hole in one end of the pipe and a fine hand saw to cut a slit in the other end.  The slit will need to be at least a couple inches deep.
  2. Thread a strong chord through the hole and tie it off securely.  You may even want to wrap some extra chord around this spot so it runs over the bow string some to make sure you bow string can snap tightly without coming untied. 
  3. Bend your pipe so you can measure how long the string needs to be in order to be tight and make the bow the right shape.  
  4. Tie a heavy bead tightly at this point on the string and trim the excess chord/string.  
  5. Pull the bead up and over the end of the pipe and thread the chord into the slit you cut with your saw.  
  6. Tape or tie more string at the slitted end of the pipe to secure the bead.  

You now have a bow.  Accompany this with some lengths of dowel that fits the size of the bow.  The dowel must be long enough that you can pull the string back and still have the dowel rest against the bow.  For fun add some feathers to one end of each dowel - be careful to keep the weight and size of the feathers balanced and even around the circumference of the dowel - the flight of your arrow will be affected by these feathers.
We made this bow for a halloween costume for "Hubby Dubby".  He was the huntsman in Red Riding Hood.  Bows and Arrows were used all over Europe Once Upon a Time Too.
For safety, you might want to cover the end of the dowels with foam or small rubber balls. Depending on the length of your bow and how tight you've strung your chord - this bow and "arrow" can cause injury if it hits someone in the wrong spot.  Always make sure no one is in your line of fire. 
The Nez Perce played a game where they tried to shoot arrows through a moving hoop.  Once you get good at shooting stationary things, try their game - instructions are about half way down the Kaya Reading Guide page.
Only allow kids to use bow and arrows while supervised.

Chapter 16

Check out this presentation of different styles of American Indian Dance.  Toward the end a circle dance is performed.  

While not mentioned in the book, there is also "hoop dancing."  First check out this demonstration.  While you watch, look for symbols and familiar shapes in the hoops in the dance.  She is telling a story.  Then, there is a really fun tutorial with kids online here.

Chapter 23

Make your own fur cap just like Matt's
project instructions for use with a real pelt or with faux fur.

I would usually include a vocabulary list with such a guide, but since I decided to handle this book in a somewhat more casual way (and as an ancillary book to all our work with the Kaya series), I decided to forgo the vocabulary aspects of the book.  Instead, you'll find a discussion question or two for each chapter, fun related activities, and links to other resources for discussion guides, vocabulary lists and similar resources.

For Discussion/Writing

Chapter One

  1. In Chapter One we meet only Matt.  Where is the rest of his family?
  2. What is the setting in this book and how do you know?

Chapter Two

  1. At First Matt feels one way about being alone, but the feeling changes as time passes.  What words does the author use to show us Matt's feelings? List three different examples and use quotation marks.
  2. Think of a time when you've been nervous to do something and then grown more confident over time.  Describe this experience to us in writing.

Chapter Three

  1. Why did Matt lie to Ben about where his Pa was and how long it would take him to return?
  2. Review what you should do if you are home alone and a stranger comes to the door.
  3. This story takes place at a time when there was a lot of fear between Natives and settlers.  As a result many settlers used inappropriate names for American Indians and hardly saw them as people.  Is Ben friendly, combative, or somewhere in between toward the American Indians he has encountered?  Does his attitude toward them depend somewhat upon which tribe the individual is from.  Use examples from Ben's words to support your claim.
  4. Why is the rifle so important to have?  What can Matt do without it?

Chapter Four

  1. Now Matt doesn't have flour, salt, Molasses (or honey), or a rifle (to catch meat with).  How would you feel about fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

 Chapter Five

  1. Why is Matt so desperate for honey?
  2. What happened when Matt tried to climb the bee tree?

 Chapter Six

  1. Why do you think Saknis helped Matt?
  2. Why is Matt honest with Saknis and not Ben?
  3. Why does Saknis want Attean to know how to read?

 Chapter Seven

  1. What does Attean find frustrating about reading?
  2. What does Matt do that gets Attean interested?

 Chapter Eight

  1. Why does Attean say, "White man not smart like Indian" and why does Matt come to agree after thinking it over?  

Chapter Nine

  1. Why does Attean continue to bring food even after Matt says he doesn't have to anymore?
  2. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Matt and his father could spend hours together without actually speaking.  Why do you think it bothers Matt that Attean speaks so little then?
  3. What upsets Attean so about the section of Robinson Crusoe Matt reads to him in this chapter?

Chapter Ten

  1. In Robinson Crusoe "Friday" is "thick-headed," meaning, he is not very smart.  Matt reconsiders this and realizes that Friday probably could  have taught Robinson Crusoe a thing or two about the Island and living there.  What experience has Matt had that makes him realize this about his favorite story?
  2. What did Matt lose while fishing other than his hook and a fish?
  3. Why is Attean's hook better than "white man's hook?"

Chapter Eleven

  1. Attean uses the word, "squaw" meaning woman.  Originally, this was the Algonquian's word for woman.  The word is used frequently now to mean woman in contexts relating to American Indians.  It has become offensive because of its over and incorrect usage by non-American Indians. What do you think of its use here?
  2. Attean clearly cares about his dog, but also says it is "good for nothing."  Make a table showing helpful qualities of Attean's dog and qualities that are not so agreeable in his dog.
  3. While they are walking in the woods, the narrator says, "They didn't like each other, but they were no longer enemies."  Were they ever really enemies?  Give evidence to show they are friends now - whether they like to admit it or not.
  4. Why are the Beaver Tribe waiting before hunting the Beaver?

Chapter Twelve

  1. List five important things Attean has taught Matt.
  2. Why is it so important to Matt that he have a bow and arrows and learn to use them?

Chapter Thirteen

  1. Matt is tired of Attean's scorn for white man.  Do you think Attean has ever felt scorn from white men?  Explain your answer.
  2. Matt has learned a lot from Attean.  What is Attean learning in return?
  3. What makes the iron trap so different from the twig and root snares Attean and Matt use?  Why is it a, "cruel way to trap an animal?" when the twig and root snares are not?

Chapter Fourteen

  1. Matt discovers that Attean and his people have a story about a great flood, much like the story of Noah and the flood from The Bible.  What other things do the two boys have in common?

Chapter Fifteen

  1. What part did Matt play in helping to defeat the bear?
  2. Why does Attean consider it sad to have killed a mother bear that still has her cub with her and apologize to the bear for it?
  3. Why does Matt take the rabbit after meeting the bear, even though it is bloodied and less appetizing to him now?

 Chapter Sixteen

  1. Why does Attean know so much about hunting and trapping?  Would he know as much about the land if he had to move to a different region of the continent such as the Great Plains, Northwest, or Southwest?
  2. Why does Matt know so little compared to Attean?
  3. Why does Attean's appearance startle Matt at the beginning of the chapter?
  4. The narrator describes the lone dancer's moves as "ridiculous contortions, for all the world like a clown in a village fair."  Is that how Attean's community would have seen it or is that how Matt saw it?  How would Attean see dances of today?

 Chapter Seventeen

  1. What do you learn about the results of the war and the lack of understanding between the settlers and the American Indians from chapter seventeen?  For more information about the French and Indian War go to The History Channel and/or
  2. Do you think it is easier to hate and fear new and different people and things or to learn to understand them?

Chapter Eighteen

  1. What is Matt noticing in the nature around him that tells him his counting sticks aren't wrong and his family is more than a month late in returning to the cottage?
  2. Was it courageous of Matt to go to Attean's Grandmother about Attean's Dog?  Explain your answer.
  3. Why is it unlikely that a young American Indian man would have seen his sister as good for nothing?
  4. Why is it not likely that Marie will go to visit with Sarah?  Explain your Answer.

Chapter Nineteen

  1. Why does Matt want to learn the work of the women?  Do you think a real Attean would  understand about how important those skills are to Matt since he is alone, or do you think the book portrays this correctly?
  2. Describe one of the two games Matt plays with the boys of Attean's community.

 Chapter Twenty

  1. In "The Sign of the Beaver" we learn that Attean must go to receive his manitou.  Although not the same, there is a tradition regarding "Guardian Angels" in Christian European culture.  The Nez Perce called their spirit guides or guardians, Wyakin.  Do a little research and find out about one other name for a "spirit guide" and the name for the group of people that used it.  How is this spirit guide similar to a manitou and how is it different?  Learn a little about the environment and the unique ceremonies centered around this rite of passage for the type of guide/guardian you discover in your research.

Chapter Twenty-One

  1. Matt has a very serious choice to make.  What are the advantages of going with Saknis and Attean?  What is the advantage of staying at the cottage while Matt waits for his family?
  2. What choice would you make if you were in Matt's shoes?

Chapter Twenty-Two

  1. Why does Matt's refusal to leave win Attean's respect?
  2. Even though Attean will never use the watch Matt gives him, he takes it gratefully.  Why do you think he is grateful despite its use-lessness?
  3. When Attean and his clan move West, they will find other tribes are already living there AND the white settlers will also continue to follow further west.  How does moving to a new land make sustaining themselves under these conditions even harder than it is in their home land? 

Chapter Twenty-Three

  1.  If you were alone in a cabin in winter for months (no TV or video games) how would you choose to spend your time?
  2. Why do you think Matt chooses to make things for his Mom, Sister, and the baby?

Chapter Twenty-Four 

  1. Why is Matt suddenly content and happier?  What worries have lifted now that the snow arrived?

Chapter Twenty-Five

  1. What kinds of adjustments will Matt have to go through now to get used to sharing the cabin with his family again and sharing the woods with the new neighbors arriving in spring?  He is glad, but it also means changes and loss of certain things - what do you think some of those things are?
  2. Why does the mention of a town growing up around them make Matt think of Attean and his family?  What do you think happens to them? 
  3. Do you think Matt's feelings and friendship with the American Indians obviously disturbs his parents.  What was happening at this time in history that would make his parents react the way they do, rather than simply having gratitude their son had help surviving their absence?
  4. How does the fact that books like Sign of the Beaver and our History books have largely been written by descendents of people like Matt's parents still play a role in our relationships with each-other today?  What can we do to over-come our own mis-understandings today?

Other Resources

Homeschool Share
Sign of the Beaver on Hulu (I have not yet previewed this)

Related or Complimentary Activities from PinchofEverything

American Indians Throughout US history and Today
The Seven Years War/French and Indian War

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