I was horrified to read on the BBC News website today that an A-level textbook has been withdrawn for incorporating a ‘shocking’ Native American question [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-59024961]. The move followed a youth worker at Durham Sixth Form Centre expressing her horror that a question in an AQA-approved book asked students whether the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of white settlers had been exaggerated.
‘It was deeply shocking to see how ingrained racial injustice is’, she told the BBC. An AQA spokesperson apologised, saying that said the exercise ‘doesn’t match our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion and should never have made it through our process for approving textbooks’.
To my mind, the text which accompanied the question seemed rather a good one. While acknowledging the dismal experience of the Indians at the hands of white settlers, it asked students to comment on some historians’ suggestion that given the brutal nature of the circumstances, which included captive white settlers being tortured to death by the Plains Indians, the Federal government’s ‘reservation policy’ was a reasonable one.
All the same, the phrasing might have been improved on to reflect modern sensibilities concerning the equality of all cultures. In an open-minded spirit of multicultural levelling up, let me suggest some alternative questions that students might be invited to discuss relating to the Native North Americans (i.e. North American Indians):
- Should cultures that engage in cannibalism be regarded as primitive, or do they in fact possess an advanced understanding of the nutritional value of human flesh?
- Should tribal cultures in which medicine takes the form of witchcraft be regarded as offering an alternative form of healthcare?
- Are cultures that engage in barbaric torture practices and practise slavery thereby culturally enrichened?
- Was the indigenous North American practice of ‘mass bison canyon slaughter’ (stampeding herds of buffalo over cliff edges) an early example of ecological farming?
- Are societies that practise agriculture and metal work, live in towns and have literate cultures more advanced than Stone age hunter-gatherers?
- Does living in houses afford a better quality of life than living in a tent or a cave?
- Are metal tools superior to stone tools?
- Is it correct to describe the invention of the wheel as an example of technological progress?
As for a text, how about this one from Garry Hogg’s Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice, which exemplifies some of these themes:
A Hamatsa demanded that another slave – this time a female – should dance for him. She stood a moment looking at him in terror and said: ‘I will dance. But do not get hungry. Do not eat me!’ She had hardly finished speaking when her master, a fellow member of the tribe, split her skull open with an axe, and the Hamatsa thereupon began to eat her flesh. This actual Hamatsa was still alive towards the end of the nineteenth century, and on interrogation remarked, among other things, that it is very much harder to consume fresh human flesh than the dried flesh of corpses that have been left to mummify in the trees and then brought down to appease the Hamatsa’s hunger. He also said that it was common practice to swallow hot water after a mouthful of flesh taken from a living body, as it was believed that this would cause the inflammation of the wound made by the teeth. All cannibal tribes, of course, file their teeth to sharp points in order to deal more effectively with their food.