Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Kaya Series - Pluses and Minuses

Since I am a mother of a seven year old American Girl, I can truthfully say, the American Girls Series fully engages my daughter in American History.  Considering this, I plan to use the collection (new and retired) as an "in" for History lessons for my daughter.  Having made this decision though, I had a few things to consider first - especially in regard to the Kaya series - the one we would begin with.  Here is what I found out about this particular series before I began setting up my lessons.

A Few General Things to Consider

The quality and accuracy of the stories behind the first three characters released when I was a girl was pretty high, so while I trust the name of "American Girl," I also know changes have occurred in the last few decades and thought I should check out the series for its accuracy before diving in with the assumption it is all accurate.  Additionally, it is fiction and a certain amount of artistic license is often taken for the sake of the audience in fictional writing.  Even in these cases, it is good to know so fictional elements are not passed down as standard or fact.

In my experience, introducing cultures from the past to kids can be particularly difficult - especially if you are teaching about a culture different from your own ethnicity or religion.  They tend to believe, the people about whom they are learning no longer exist, OR still exist somewhere living exactly as they did during the era about which they are learning.  It is common for young people to believe that Native Americans no longer live and exist today if we focus too much on the past.  Just as the Dutch no longer walk around in wooden clogs while churning milk into butter in front of a windmill, Native Americans still live, work and learn today but they don't do it the same way they did centuries ago (contrary to the beliefs of some).  In some ways these changes are in the natural order of things.  In order to be sure Alice understands Native Americans are not simply "of the past," I plan to discuss Native Americans before European Settlement, during European Settlement, and introduce her to more Modern examples as well within this unit.  I want to introduce Alice to Maria Tallchief, Jim Thorpe, and Will Rogers and perhaps others.  Here are Two relevant lists of other Modern Natives: 11 Native Americans Everyone Should Know and STAR's List (Students and Teachers Against Racism).

You also don't want to give kids the idea that a particular group of people or region of the world is static - frozen in time.  One can point out to their children how European Colonialists dressed and lived, and how life has changed in that realm too and make comparisons.


There are factual mistakes, mis-statements and misrepresentations.  Some examples of the kinds of of things inaccurately represented include:
  • Words and names used for things listed in the book tend to be names given by other cultures, not the Nez Perce themselves. Even the name, "Nez Perce" is one assigned by the French and not the name the people chose for themselves.
  • Traditions are depicted inaccurately such as naming children, relationship between father and daughter.
  • Grandparents lecturing.
  • How the disabled would have been treated.
  • How the horses would have been treated.
  • How raids actually occurred.
  • Illustrations also carry inaccuracies such as how the women sat and the use of only one color to represent skin tone.
I do not personally feel this means the books can't be used - why throw out the baby with the bath water?  However, I do prefer not making similar mistakes myself (when I can help it), so I did more research in order to be a better, more knowledgeable instructor.  A few of these things can even found in the non-fiction, "Peeking into the Past" sections at the end of each book.  This article listed problems with the book clearly and succinctly enough to be very useful.  A couple of items on this authors list, I did not find corroborative evidence for.  However, since the article is actually a snippet from an edited and published book, and she has credentials as an expert in the field (in addition to her heritage) she is probably knowledgeable and trustworthy on the subject over-all.  The critique may be a touch harsh for reasons listed below.  However, it does make a few key aspects of the book clear so a parent or teacher can use the books in a sensitive and informed way.  I recommend reading it so you can discuss our modern cultural stereotypes and romanticization of the Native American and his/her role in history with your student at a level he/she can understand.

Having linked that critique, I will say there are a few inaccuracies in the Kaya Series, probably given for artistic license and not purely because of ignorance and sloppiness.  One example is the relationship between Kaya and her father - which includes hugging each-other as well as riding together.  Something the Nez Perce would not have done according to the article I linked.  The series makes similar errors in other series as well in regard to the likelihood of close relationships between father and daughter that look like close modern relationships.  While more "touchy-feely" fathers may have existed during any of the historic periods in question, they were not the norm for much of our shared history for any of us.  Even "Pa" from Laura Ingle's books is not as "touchy-feely" as he is depicted in the popular television shows based on the books.  Additionally, the "Pa" Laura describes in her autobiographical books was especially loving and modern compared to many other fathers of that time.  Apparently, such a relationship would absolutely have been out of the question in a Nez Perce society.  However, to today's elementary student, a more accurately depicted relationship may feel cold.  The more modern depiction of warmth between family members helps to make the characters more relate-able to today's kids.  It also juxtaposes separations in the families nicely making the separations in the stories more poignant.  It is worth-while to point this and other differences out to kids.  It can be part of learning the difference between biography and historical fiction.

As another example of artistic license being used, I'll point out, the author of the critique, identifies the use of the grandparents as lecturers to depict information that otherwise would be hard to convey as a literary device.  Bad writing or not, it does its job of getting cultural information across to the young reader and what is boring to an adult, may not always be to a young child (the number of young girls that absolutely fall in love with Kaya and other American Girls is proof of that).

The Kaya series uses nature-based metaphors.  While on the surface, this is not harmful (and it was only through reading a few critiques of the series that I came to understand it as a problem), such a choice CAN add up to compounding already existing stereotypes and misconceptions.  when in combination with the already existing stereotype of all Native Americans as nature loving, and enlightened peoples, it has the potential of creating a deeper belief in the Stereotypical "nature aware" Native American.  While this may seem positive, it is still a stereotype that makes a whole group of people seem separate and different from another - as well as extinct.  MANY tribes did share beliefs that prevented over-use of resources, but not all.  I do not bring this up as only a criticism, but to make sure readers are aware of the issue - subtle as it is.  I can't know the author's thoughts on the matter, but It seems to me, these choices were made specifically to depict Kaya's world and her relationship with it, not to perpetuate a stereotype.  Similarly, Caroline's metaphors are often about sailing (her father is a captain and owns a ship-building company.  She sails The Great Lakes with him often).  It gives kids a sense of not only the character, but what the character comes into contact with most frequently.  However, An informed reader can look at it, identify it, and understand it for what it is - a literary device to convey the interests of the individual character - Kaya.  A child may need help making this distinction.

The timing of Kaya's tales is a convenient way to avoid issues of Aboriginal American oppression by European newcomers into the future and intervening years.  While officially, these issues do arise later in American History, teaching about Native American Culture means addressing this ugly part of history too.  When the dolls were made by Pleasant Company issues such as slavery and child labor laws were addressed with sensitivity, but addressed.

Some accuse Mattel (the company that now owns the American Girl line) as avoiding the harsher parts of history and site the timing of Kaya's series as one example of this avoidance.  However, the company has also issued characters such as Gwen (a modern homeless girl) more recently.  Plus, no matter what is done, when it comes to tough topics, there will be controversy.  Some will say a story doesn't go far enough to depict the truth of whatever it is that is controversial, while others will say the same story goes too far (because it is for kids).  A company that makes dolls (and stories to go with them) can really only do so much and it is unfair to expect these fictional books to be perfectly accurate accounts of history.  Since I am meaning to use these fictional novels as a starting point for history lessons, I consider it my job to be informed on what is accurate history and what is license for the literary aspects of the book, not the job of the company behind the series (the do describe the books as historical FICTION after-all).  I also see it as my job to supplement additional information to give a complete and well-rounded picture of the period depicted and the various points of view inherent in the stories that make our history.  Along the way, I hope the resources I find can be helpful to you too.

Kaya is depicted as a Nez Perce, not just another "Native American."  Native Americans are individuals and each tribe had its own culture, language and way of doing things different from the next.  The Nez Perce at the point in history depicted, already had a different way of doing things from their own tribe in the century before (Horses arrived with the Spanish Conquistadors).   Of course, just as with any people, the way the Nez Perce did things in 1764 varied from the way they did things in 1874, 1974 and today.

I have tried to include lessons to help in counteracting the common stereotypes within this unit - please read on for specific resources and ideas.

For more information on any of these issues, how to avoid perpetuating them and a list of recommended books, check out "I is not for Indian".  It has quite a large list of books to look at as well as books to avoid and questions you can ask yourself as you preview books about whether they perpetuate stereotypes or not.  In particular, I appreciate the list of questions one can ask regarding new books at the very end of the article (scroll all the way to the bottom).  Then, teach your kids this list of questions.  That way, even when they do read questionable material, they know how to think it through and recognize biases and stereotypes when they see them.

On what to call the group of aborigines to the North American Continent? I'll include these links: I am an American Indian, and Why I'm an Indian - Not "Native American." Of course, these are two opinions from a sea of voices on the subject.

To Return to the Unit Home Page List for History with Kaya, click here.

Additional Resources:

Native Web

First Nations Histories

An Eric Digest article outlining best practices concerning curricula on Native Americans.

Tribal Names and their Meanings - Scroll past the books and go toward the bottom of the screen for list.

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