American Indian Stereotypes coverThe Sign of the Beaver: The Problem and the Solution



by Sanda Cohen




The Sign of the Beaver is required reading in many elementary schools in the United States. Here is how one New Jersey teacher incorporated the novel, one she considered problematic, into her fifth grade curriculum.

The Problem

For sixty years students at a New Jersey private school studied U.S. history using a textbook and chronological approach. They read a chapter, answered questions listed at the end, and memorized dates and names. The highlight of this curriculum approach culminated in a social studies fair held at the end of the year. After writing a research paper on a famous person in American history (not necessarily related to the era they had studied), the students attended the fair costumed as “their” person, acting out their historical parts before the faculty, other students, and the parents. The students loved the fair, and the school considered it the most successful aspect of the social studies curriculum.

Five years ago teachers decided to rewrite the social studies curriculum and to incorporate many of the more exciting aspects of the fair into the daily curriculum. The fifth grade team developed an experiential, theme-orientated, integrated curriculum, including eight field trips and an overnight campout. Teachers selected a new and less traditional textbook and a large selection of fiction related to American history. The result was a new and intellectually stimulating approach to American history. Fifth graders studied the development of the original thirteen American colonies by focusing on the history of New Jersey. As a member of the fifth grade team, I took part in the campout and field trips to various colonial sites designed to help the students understand the experience of the early colonial settlers.

After the field trips, the trouble started. The entire fifth grade began a thematic unit based on The Sign of the Beaver, a novel by Elizabeth George Speare that was awarded a 1983 Newbery Honor Book by the American Library Association and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. In 1989, Speare captured the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award administered by the American Library Association. Given every three years to an author or illustrator who has made a lasting contribution to children’s literature, this award honored Speare for The Sign of the Beaver as well as her other works. Recommended for classroom use by many well-known and well-respected publications, such as the Horn Book (1984), Instructor (March 1990), The Web: Wonderfully Exciting Books(Winter 1984), the novel is also on videocassette, available through Random House Video, Newbery Video Collection. An illustrated version of the book is meant as an enrichment program to “help students to follow the plot, to visualize characters and setting and to practice important listening skills.”1

The Sign of the Beaver is a story about Matt, a twelve-year old boy who leaves Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1768 with his father, ostensibly to build a homestead in the area of the Penobscot River in Maine. That summer Matt’s father returned to Massachusetts to pick up his wife, daughter, and a baby born after Matt and his father had left for Maine. During his father’s absence Matt was left alone in Maine and in a series of misadventures, Matt’s rifle is stolen, his family supply of flour lost to a bear, and his life almost ended by a swarm of bees. As a result of the adventures, he met Saknis, an Indian belonging to an unspecified tribe, and Saknis’ grandson, Attean.

My students began to read the book and to write reflectively about the reading in their reading logs each night. Weekly vocabulary lessons were based on words taken from the text. Each night I chose a different word from the novel and the students were required to write a paragraph using the word as it related to their own lives. However, as we progressed in our classroom discussions, certain elements of the story began to disturb me; I was not sure what was nagging at me until page 74. There Attean kills a bear and tells Matt that the work of butchering the bear is “squaw work”. Although I read the book before it was assigned to the students, I had never noticed the use of that word before. Now it struck me immediately that this obviously pejorative label would require many discussions about stereotypes and the way that stereotypes are accidentally reinforced, sometimes by well-meaning writers, teachers, parents and others who influence the way children view the world.

The worst was yet to come. This unit culminated with “The Sign of the Beaver Day,” during which students were requested to dress either as “settlers” or as “Indians.” No guidance was given to help them dress with any authenticity. (Although the schools library housed books that would have been helpful, I am not sure that any student actually used them for research.) After the students and faculty proceeded to the school brook, they participated in four different activities: writing treaties, storytelling, drawing, and games. The faculty made a great effort to be authentic, and research was done to be sure that Indian ways were respected. But for me there was one overriding issue: I could not allow my class to dress up as Indians without feeling that I had done something wrong. Although I knew that in the previous year, “The Sign of the Beaver Day” had been a huge success, I did not believe that the students’ enjoyment justified the blatant stereotyping of American Indians. As Robert B. Moore and Arlene Hirschfelder state in American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography:

Genuine interest in the uniqueness and diversity of Native cultures can be met by studying the cultures, without having to “play” them. And genuine concern for the Native people can best be met not by playing them, but by actively confronting the policies and practices of the United States which directly oppress Native people.2


…one cannot become a Native American by donning feathers, fringed buckskin , and moccasins because a Native person is not an occupation or a role to be played. It is a state of being, an ethnic identity. Having children dress up and play Indians encourages them to think Native Americans are nothing more than a playtime activity rather than an identity that is often fraught with economic deprivation, discrimination, gross injustice and powerlessness.3

Because I agreed, I simply could not countenance students dressing up in “Indian” costumes at this time or in the future. This meant I had to change the way the unit was handled.

The Solution

After reading and rereading The Sign of the Beaver with great care, many more things bothered me. From the beginning, the reader becomes persuaded that the Indians did terrible things to white people as a matter of course. Matt thinks to himself: “His father had been assured by the proprietors that his new settlement would be safe. Since the last treaty with the tribes, there had not been an attack reported in this part of Maine. Still, one could not forget all those horrid tales.”4 As a Minnesota League of Women Voters study points out: “A distorted image of Indians as war-like has prevailed throughout American history. Indians defending their lands against encroachment by European settlers have been termed ‘blood thirsty savages’ and their victories ‘massacres.’”5 At the end of the book, the Indian reasons for attacking settlers is explained. By then, the message transmitted to the students cannot be reversed.

Attean’s relationship with Matt also reinforces stereotypes. Attean is not happy to spend time with Matt but his grandfather, Saknis, wants Attean to learn to speak and read English. However, throughout the book Attean speaks in pidgin English, the halting speech so often associated with American Indians, and reinforced in too many movies to mention as well as by the Random House video made specifically for children. Matt is clearly trying to give Attean something of value, in this case English, in exchange for what Attean has taught him about survival in the woods. But Attean resists. “The only thing Matt could teach him, Attean was set against learning. For Attean the white man’s signs of paper were piz wat – good for nothing. Nevertheless, Matt noticed that in spite of himself Attean had learned something from the white boy. He was speaking the English tongue with greater ease. Perhaps he was not aware himself how differently he spoke.6

Although Attean did not value the “white man’s language,” the author was committed to having him learn to speak English correctly. Speare, however, did not make him smart enough to notice the difference in how he spoke or what he said. Further, although Matt said Attean was speaking better English his dialogue never improved and he never spoke proper English. Even at the end of the book, when Attean was ready to leave Maine, he spoke to Matt in pidgin English. “What for I read? My grandfather mighty hunter. My father mighty hunter. They not read.”7 Matt believes that Attean does not or cannot understand what he was trying to teach. Matt thinks to himself, “How could you explain, Matt wondered, to someone who just did not want to understand?”8 This writing by Speare suggests that Attean is just not smart enough to understand. On three separate occasions, Matt says that Attean could never understand what Matt was trying to teach him. He could not understand the concept of land ownership, he could not understand Robinson Crusoe, and he could not learn to use a watch. But Matt is easily capable of understanding the complicated ideas of land ownership form the Indian perspective, as well as their language and customs. Once again, Matt is represented as much smarter than Attean.

Cultural stereotyping emerged again in Chapter 14 when Attean and Matt exchanged stories about religion. Matt told the story of Noah and the flood, and Attean told the story of the Beaver people, the story of Gluskabe and an Indian flood. Matt, who refused to accept this Beaver story as unique, could not understand how Attean could know about Noah and the Flood.

At the end of the story, Saknis and Attean leave the area and invite Matt, whose parents had not yet returned, to join them. Matt says that he prefers to wait for his parents but somehow the reader is left with the feeling that Matt is committed to the lifestyle he knows—as opposed to the Indian way of life.

During the school year when we began to plan “The Sign of the Beaver Day.” We decided that the day would focus on what the lessons of this novel meant to the students. Because it is clear Speare created two unlikely friends who influenced one another, I set out to create the same scenario. Each student was told to plan to teach something he/she knew to another student. The students were broken into groups and each was assigned a partner. The students were not allowed to pick their own partners and the teachers made sure that each student was assigned a partner that he/she would not have chosen.

When the students came to my room. I began a lesson based on the meaning of friendship. I asked the students to tell me what qualities they felt a friend should have. After listing the traits on the board they voted and picked truthfulness and loyalty as the most important qualities. Then they were asked if they believe they had those same qualities to offer in friendship. The question surprised them. They were much more comfortable describing how someone else should behave as a friend rather than talking about whether they offered the same qualities. But the ensuing discussion was powerful. When a student tried to go back to the book in order to keep the discussion on a less personal level I redirected the conversations back to their feelings. I wanted them to internalize the lesson about friendship. I did not want them to think only about the relationship of two fictional characters who lived long ago. I wanted the story about two unlikely friends to have real meaning in their daily lives. They had plenty of interesting things to teach each other. One student taught another to play a tune on the piano, one shared his camera and took pictures around the school, one student taught another to weave a bracelet out of thread, one taught calligraphy, one taught clay modeling, one taught cartooning, one taught a card game, and one taught another how to play mancali (a complicated game played with marbles). To my astonishment the students thought of many things a teacher would not have imagined. They were interested and involved because they were all doing something they were good at and enjoyed. When the time allotted for this activity came to an end, the students all seemed sorry that the experience was over. Most chose to have lunch with their partners. Although I did not assume that permanent new friendships were formed that day, I do think that many of the students discerned interesting and wonderful qualities in peers they previously din not know well. Perhaps in the future they will be more likely to let new people in their lives.

The students enjoyed the day just as much as if they had dressed up and pretended to be either “settlers” or Indians. They learned a lot about friendship in a couple of hours without pretending to write “peace treaties” or to make up fake Indian legends. Additionally, the lessons were learned without any child pretending he/she could “speak Indian.” The students, (who seemed to have forgotten about Attean and Matt), were far more interested in what they had taught to their partners or what they had learned from theirs.

Hopefully the students have learned to make a connection between the concept of friendship expressed in The Sign of the Beaver and their own lives.
1 Pamphlet published by American School Publishers, Random House Newbery Video Collection, 1988.
2 Robert B. Moore and Arlene B. Hirschfelder, “Feathers, Tomahawks and Tipis: A Study of Stereotyped ‘Indian Imagery in Children’s Picture Books, in American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography, ed. Arlene B. Hirschfelder (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982), p. 73.
3 Arlene B. Hirschfelder, “Toys with Indian Imagery,” in American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography, ed. Arlene B. Hirschfelder (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., p. 171.
4 Elizabeth George Speare, The Sign of the Beaver (New York: Dell Publishing, 1984), P. 9.
5 League of Women Voters, “Children’s Impressions of American Indians: A Survey of Suburban Kindergarten and Fifth Grade Children: Conclusions, in American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography, ed. Arlene B. Hirschfelder (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982), p. 9.
6 Speare, Sign, pp. 66, 67
7 Speare, Sign, p. 116
8 Speare, Sign, pp. 66

The preceding article was reproduced from American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography, second edition, Arlene B. Hirschfelder, Paulette Fairbanks Molin and Yvonne Wakim, ed. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Maryland, 1999.

Permission to reproduce this copyrighted article was granted by The Scarecrow Press, Inc., March 2003.