The Legend of the Bluebonnet

dePaolaI am making this post with some trepidation because I realize that both bluebonnets and DePaola are kind of sacred to many.

There can be no doubt that DePaola has had a “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children” as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award committee announced.

But,

when a person from one culture tells another culture’s story they sometimes just can’t help making mistakes. DePaola said he did a lot of research before creating this book and I believe him. I also believe his intentions were good. And seriously, it is kind of a relief to even see first nations people represented in children’s literature. For that alone, thank you.

Unfortunately, there are a few things in this story that just don’t ring true to me. I think that as DePaola told the tale his own cultural background/assumptions couldn’t help but slip in.

Family Structure & Domestic Life

The main character She-Who-Is-Alone is an orphan. Why is she an orphan? What has happened to her parents? Did they die in one of the epidemics that nearly destroyed so many native groups? Whatever disaster struck it must have been really bad because as far as I can determine Comanche people were not organized around nuclear families. A boy had special connections with his father’s brothers and a girl had the support of her mother’s sisters. If she is an orphan then not only is her immediate family dead but the whole extended clan is gone, too.

Normally, a girl would spend a lot of time with her mother’s family to learn the skills she needed. The little doll she carries is less likely to be a warrior doll than one of the mannequins little girls carried to practice their sewing skills.

I wonder what happened to her name? She-Who-Is-Alone is obviously a literary device but not knowing her real name bothers me. I suppose that was probably the author’s intention. It adds to the character’s alienation.

Religion

When the Comanche’s population was reduced so drastically that some bands were driven out of their traditional range they moved south and east displacing other first nations people. During this period of chaos the Comanche went into survival mode. I don’t know if they were originally agriculturalists but at the time when Europeans were spreading across the continent the Comanche were on the road and in hunter gatherer mode. There was even a shift in their belief system. They became pragmatists relying on their own personal power rather than the supernatural. The theme of sacrifice which sounds so very Christian (and gives the story its power) just doesn’t sit right with me. This is only an intuition. I could be wrong.

Economy and Political Structure

The book shows tipis indicating the people were nomadic. Nomadic people are certainly inconvenienced and frightened by drought but drought is not necessarily a dire situation. Where farmers are tethered to the land nomads can move following the rains and wildlife.

A strength of the book is showing how decision making was communal and built on consensus. Another strength of the book is showing the anguish of a people caught in forces beyond their control.

So

I sincerely hope that teachers and librarians using this story can take it beyond the language arts class. The Legend of the Bluebonnet could make a nice starting point for discussing some issues that I hope are explored in social studies classes. I doubt this is happening though because as I did a quick search of reviews I simply did not see these cultural issues being discussed. A busy teacher would likely only find glowing reviews of how accurately the culture is visually depicted.

Even in a picture book, story resonates so I feel compelled to throw in a few words suggesting the underlying story here is a tragedy. Does knowledge of Comanche culture reverse the protagonist’s triumph? Does her action show an affirmation of her culture or does it better reflect a disintegration? Is there any meaning in the idea that the symbol of redemption is a beautiful but largely inedible flower? I suppose in the long view a bluebonnet is a hopeful sign but hungry people might have been more impressed by a field of blooming Apios americana. ;)

Apologies in advance for any hurt feelings.

bluebonnet leaves

Edit: if you don’t know the story I recommend checking out http://ravenscourtgardens.com/2014/03/28/garden-quote-friday-the-legend-of-bluebonnet/

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12 thoughts on “The Legend of the Bluebonnet

  1. The person who advised me works in Aboriginal education. She interfaces with a lot of First Nations peoples and has observed that when oral history is discussed, the word “legend” is never used. Instead she is hearing “stories” and “teachings”. She suggested that using that using the language of the First Nations in discussing their culture is a sign of respect. I’m on a continual learning curve myself, so I’m following her lead:)

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  2. We all move through the world, doing our best, but it is important that we continue to learn about the finer points. It’s how we evolve our cultural sensitivity. Case in point, I recently learned that referring to “legends” is frowned upon. The more acceptable are “stories” or “teachings”. Thank you for sharing this content and highlighting the questions we need to continue asking as we read … and write.

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  3. While I sincerely appreciate the call for teachers to thoughtfully and accurately represent the Comanche culture in their classrooms, I feel in singling this book out it is important not to lose sight that it is the recounting of a legend, was released in 1983, and is written for very young readers, aged 4-8. I wonder if most of the (valid) cultural questions raised here are appropriate to tackle in a preschool through third grade student context.

    That said, as a native Texan and bluebonnet fan I too would like to know more about the story origins. I’m looking forward to another post!

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    1. Thanks for your comment. As I wrote the post I was worried that I would offend someone. That was not my intention.

      I didn’t intend to single this particular book out and I am sympathetic to the author who I think made a reasonable effort to get it right. If he didn’t quite get it right in the dim days of the 80s that isn’t necessarily a problem. And besides, any problem areas can be seen as opportunities to clear the way. Teachable moments.

      I guess I am mostly wondering if this really is a Comanche legend and if so just how old it could be. It would likely date to after the time they entered Texas and that is quite recent. If so, the context behind the legend becomes kind of important.

      Maybe bluebonnets grow west of the Rockies, too. That would be worth a look. if so, the legend might be older.

      The themes are frightening as is for preschool aged children but the story and a discussion about the context might be just right for 4th grade and above which is when students begin to study other cultures and Texas history. I have seen high school and uni teachers use picture books in their lectures, too. Picture books, like comics, aren’t only for wee tykes.

      I think it is -especially- important to give Texas kids accurate cross cultural information since the first nations were almost entirely and officially “removed.’ Unlike other states and provinces, few of the people are present in Texas to speak for themselves. So if we are going to talk about a people we ought to at least get the facts right.

      (fine print: There are a couple of reservations in Texas but they in no way represent the original diversity of cultures. There are first nations people in urban areas too of course but the numbers are few and easily overwhelmed.)

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  4. You make many good points! History is complicated and too many important facts get glossed over. Here is another telling of the She-Who-is-Alone’s story http://www.coedu.usf.edu/culture/Story/Story_Texas.htm Her family died from a drought! I would hope everyone that read DePaola’s book would use it as a jumping off point!
    I found it when searching out more information on the poem. I wondered if the Native Americans were experiencing a drought like the one we just had here in Texas. Thanks for the connection : )

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    1. Any story that warns us to behave responsibly in a time of drought is certainly welcome. I live in Texas so it is certainly relevant.

      Thanks for the link. I did see that page but I assumed it was just another re-telling of the legend. I wrote the author to request more information. If it is a first person account I would really want to know more about this person!

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