Michigan: The World Around Us

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The textbook is somewhat informative but is also frequently biased in what is covered and how it is presented. Students should read this book with caution and supplement it with much outside reading.

The other fourth-grade text is JoEllen Vinyard’s Michigan: The World Around Us, which is intended for use in history and social studies.54 The Vinyard text is a classic example of the axiom "You can’t judge a book by its cover." It is gorgeously illustrated with colorful pictures, high quality paper, and excellent graphics. In appearance it is the best of all the Michigan history texts. In content, however, it is the worst.

The problem is not with the author’s abilities. Vinyard is an established historian with solid credentials. The problem is her decision—and that of her advisors—to make the text follow the recent trend toward multiculturalism, whereby the "struggles" of Indians, blacks, women, and other minorities are stressed at the expense of traditional political and economic history. Multiculturalism in and of itself is not bad. Indians, blacks, and women played important roles in Michigan history and that needs to be described in history texts. What’s bad is that Vinyard uses evidence selectively to make her minorities almost always virtuous and courageous in a world often marred by the misdeeds of white males.

If students are not given the best evidence that each side has to offer, how can they make informed decisions?

Vinyard begins her historical section with three chapters largely devoted to the story of Michigan’s Indians.55 How the Indians lived and how they related to the incoming whites (French, British, and American) is interesting and worthy of description. Sometimes, however, Vinyard’s narrative lacks balance. Indians are noble and courageous; they have admirable cultures; they work well together; and they protect the environment. The whites came and undermined Indian culture with the fur trade and later "forced" them off their land and out of Michigan. Her description could be improved with three changes.

First, the Indian tribes were not always united. It’s true, in early Michigan history the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi worked together harmoniously; but the Iroquois and Huron fought each other to the death to be middlemen in the fur trade. Later the Chippewa and Sioux battled for land in the Michigan and Wisconsin territories. When Thomas McKenney, superintendent for Indian Affairs, visited the Great Lakes in the 1820s, he described in detail a Chippewa woman who had been scalped during a Sioux raid on her tribe.56

Native Americans
Native Americans. Officials negotiated voluntary treaties with Indians, a fact often overlooked in Michigan history texts.
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Second, Indian culture was more than hunting, trading, and protecting the environment. It was also scalping, torturing, and killing one’s rivals. Vinyard neglects this side of Indian culture, but it needs to be explained so that students can understand why the American settlers were so anxious to push the Indians westward, or onto reservations.

Vinyard would be more credible if she sometimes described the darker side of Indian life. During Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, for example, the Chippewa and Sauk tricked the British soldiers and captured their fort. Here is Vinyard’s account:

The Indians used a clever plan to capture Fort Michilimackinac. They knew that the British king’s birthday was on June 4. A Chippewa chief suggested to the fort commander that the Indians and the British join together in a celebration. As part of the celebration, some visiting Sauk Indians would play a ball game against the Chippewa outside the fort.

On June 4 the soldiers came out of the fort to watch the game. Chippewa women stood around the fort wrapped in their blankets. The Chippewa and the Sauk began their game of baggataway, which was similar to lacrosse.

At one point, the wooden ball was thrown into the fort. The players rushed in after it. As they passed through the gates of the fort, the players grabbed the weapons that the women were holding under their blankets! Once inside, the Indians easily took control of the fort.

The Native Americans fought bravely to defend the land and the freedom that the British were taking away from them.57

What is absent here is the massacre of the 20 British soldiers and one trader when the Indians entered the fort. Alexander Henry, a fur trader, hid in the attic of a house, saw the massacre, and described it this way:

Through an aperture which afforded me a view of the area of the fort, I beheld, in shapes the foulest and most horrible, the ferocious triumphs of barbarian conquerors. The dead were scalped and mangled; the dying were writhing and shrieking under the unsatiated knife and tomahawk; and from the bodies of some, ripped open, their butchers were drinking the blood, scooped up in the hollow of joined hands and quaffed amid shouts of rage and victory.58

 

Vinyard treats the River Raisin massacre during the War of 1812 in a similar way. "Angry troops," Vinyard writes, "met the British and Indians in a battle on the River Raisin, near present-day Monroe. Although many soldiers from both sides died, the Americans lost the battle. The next morning, Native Americans returned to the River Raisin. Angry that so many of their people had died in battle, they attacked the wounded American soldiers left on the battlefield."

Here, at least, Vinyard admits an attack took place. What’s missing is (1) the fact that the British, under Colonel Henry Proctor, promised protection from Indians to the wounded Americans, and (2) that 200 Potawatomi Indians did not just "attack" the wounded, but scalped them, murdered them, and burned the houses where they were lodged. No wonder so many whites in Michigan were anxious after the war to move the Potawatomi to Kansas.59

Third, Vinyard is not accurate when she argues at length that "by 1836, they [the Indians] had been forced to sell the entire peninsula to the government." It is fair to criticize the American negotiators as two-faced (as were the Potawatomies at River Raisin) and manipulative (as were the Chippewas at Fort Michilimackinac). Neither Indians nor whites had a monopoly on virtue. But "forced" is the wrong word to use. It’s true that pressure and bribes sometimes helped convince Indian chiefs to leave. But the Michigan story is one of the various Indian groups signing treaties voluntarily, though sometimes reluctantly. Sometimes the U. S. government did not fulfill its treaty obligations, and this is a point of legitimate criticism. But according to historians Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May, the Indians were often paid well for land that had low market value. "Up to 1880," Dunbar and May point out, "the total cost to the United States government of the public domain acquired from the Indians amounted to $275,000,000, and the surveys of the land had cost another $46,000,000. Total receipts from the sale of these lands to that date were $120,000,000 less than these expenditures." 60

Herman Viola, a historian of the American Indian, describes an 1826 treaty with the Chippewas (of Fort Michilimackinac fame) this way:

The Chippewas accepted the terms [of the treaty] without a murmur. [Lewis] Cass [Michigan’s territorial governor] and [Thomas] McKenney [Superintendent of Indian Affairs] promptly signed the document, the superintendent with his usual bold strokes and splendid flourish. Shingauba Wassin next stepped forward and signed; he was followed by eighty-four chiefs and warriors in what seemed to McKenney an endless procession.61

Shingauba Wassin, the first Chippewa to sign the treaty said this to his people: "Our Fathers have come here to embrace their children. Listen to what they say. It will be good for you. If you have any Copper on your lands, I advise you to sell it. It is of no advantage to us. They can convert it into articles for our use." 62

This analysis of the Chippewas is important because Vinyard discusses them more than any other tribe. "They were forced to give up their land to the United States government... ," 63 Vinyard insists in a two-page "Point-Counterpoint" section that asks students to evaluate the evidence on Chippewa fishing rights. But if students are not given the best evidence that each side has to offer, how can they make informed decisions?

Vinyard’s treatment of blacks in Michigan history also needs more work. "During the 1600s," she writes, "many thousands of Africans were captured by armed Europeans and shipped across the Atlantic in chains." As John Newton and other slave traders pointed out, the Europeans usually stopped in designated ports to pick up the Africans, who had been captured and were being sold by other Africans. Armed ships were more the exception than the rule. Next, Vinyard has the slaves being shipped to "the tobacco and rice fields of the British colonies." In fact, most went to the sugar fields, and not in the American colonies but in the West Indies and Brazil.64

These two misunderstandings are not critical. The major problem is that Vinyard often substitutes black history for traditional political and economic history. For example, her chapter on "Michigan and the Civil War" is largely a discussion of Michigan blacks and the Civil War. The same is true with chapter 8, lesson 1 on immigration to Michigan. In this section, Vinyard devotes 89 lines of text to African-American migration to Michigan and only 86 lines to all of the European immigration to Michigan. Yet her map of Detroit on page 190 shows how small the African-American community was.65

In chapter 8, lesson 2, "The Progressive Era, [1900-1920]" Vinyard shifts from an unbalanced treatment of blacks to an unbalanced treatment of women. Of the 117 lines in the lesson, 49 are on women in the Progressive Era, 58 are on Hazen Pingree, a liberal reform governor, and 10 lines summarize both Pingree and the women. The traditional Progressive-Era issues of railroad regulation, child labor, the income tax, and direct election of senators are completely absent from the chapter.66

Chapter 9, Vinyard’s last chapter, covers 70 years of Michigan history in only 17 pages.67 The last four pages, the modern part, are completely devoted to African-Americans and the civil rights movement. Civil rights issues are important and need to be described, but not to exclusion of everything else. Students need to know other things about the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Vinyard might argue that she was pressed for space and therefore couldn’t include anything but civil rights material. Also, she might argue, the section on Michigan government has some modern material in it. Both statements may be true, but she could have saved dozens of pages of space by cutting or reducing the non-historical material. The first 20 percent of the text (57 of 292 pages) covers geography and Paul Bunyan legends. Also, much of the material inserted between chapters has little historical relevance. Perhaps the graph section on pages 138-139 can help students learn about population. But the Teacher of the Year insert on page 150, the cause-and-effect section on pages 222-223, and the how to read a newspaper section on pages 258-259, and several others are only very peripherally related to history or social studies—and consume space that could be used for historical material.

Space could also be saved by cutting the material on faddish topics. Vinyard’s coverage of the environment, for example, is lengthy, one-sided, and outdated. Our forests are not being depleted, as Vinyard implies; in fact, timber acreage and production are both increasing. "Acid rain has become one of the most serious environmental problems facing the United States today," Vinyard warns. The Great Lakes, she says, are especially vulnerable. This interpretation, however, was discredited in the 1980s in a $500 million scientific study called the National Acid Precipitation Project (NAPAP). After ten years of careful research, the expert scientists involved in the study concluded that there is very little evidence that acid rain damages forests or crops.68

The NAPAP study also found that American lakes and streams were in much better shape than the EPA and other critics had assumed. Michigan’s Great Lakes, for example, not only passed the acid-rain tests with ease, but Lakes Michigan and Superior register four times cleaner than they were in 1970.69 We still need to be responsible toward the environment, and it’s fine for Vinyard to say that to students. But she needs to present a balanced view that doesn’t frighten students with outdated information.

In choosing to write multicultural history, Vinyard gives only limited space to economic development in Michigan. Her lesson on "The Birth of the Auto" is brief but informative. The longer lesson, "The Rise of the Unions," presents unions as unmixed blessings. Being consistent with her multicultural slant, Vinyard gives more words to Catherine Gelles, a rank-and-file UAW member, than to Walter Reuther, the UAW president. What is ignored in her discussion are the problems with the seniority system in unions and the sometimes sharp increase in costs to consumers of union-made products.

Vinyard praises government intervention in the economy. She closes her lesson on "The Great Depression" with these words:

When the good times of the 1920s came to an end, the United States entered the Great Depression. Many Michiganians lost their jobs and faced great poverty. The government helped many people to survive by providing jobs.70

Government, however, as we have seen, only provides jobs by raising taxes. These New Deal taxes on income, bank checks, telephones, autos, and even grape concentrates simply transferred funds from the private to the public sector. Unemployment was still shockingly high in the late 1930s. Vinyard’s text would be more balanced if it included this kind of information in a paragraph or two.

In her section on "Building Skills" Vinyard has students do the following assignment.

Now apply what you have learned. Read each pair of sentences below. Tell which sentence states the cause and which sentence states the effect.

• The New Deal programs put thousands of Michiganians to work.

• The United States government started the New Deal.71

What’s needed for balance is a third sentence: "The tax increases during the New Deal put thousands of Michiganians out of work." Vinyard effectively presents one side of the issue; students would benefit from hearing the other.

The recent trend in textbooks toward multiculturalism, whereby the "struggles" of Indians, blacks, women, and other minorities are stressed is done at the expense of traditional political and economic history.

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