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165 CHAPTER 11 America’s Indigenous Reading Revolution PHILLIP H. ROUND The boy stood on the burning deck, Whence all but he had fled. —FELICIA DOROTHEA HEMANS, “Casabianca,” 1826 Sometime in the 1860s, at a Presbyterian mission school in northeastern Nebraska, Francis La Flesche (1857–1932), an eight-year-old student from the Omaha Nation, was “busy with [his] spelling lesson” while a “class of big boys and girls” were reciting the above lines of poetry “in concert.” “Again and again the teacher made them read the lines,” La Flesche later recalled, “but each time some one would either lag behind or read faster than others.”1 The scene La Flesche witnessed would be performed repeatedly across America in the nineteenth century, as both Native and non-Native children dutifully waded their way through McGuffey’s Readers (figure 11.1). This reading instruction manual, a work historians have long categorized as a “storehouse of fables, stories, mottoes, proverbs, adages, and aphorisms” for the everyday American, was also at the center of progressive efforts to standardize reading practices through prescriptive recitation and public performance for America’s new common school system.2 To McGuffey himself, his readers and spellers were no less than “book[s] of the youth’s world in a pioneer land” (34). Yet for young Native children such as Edward Goodbird of the Hidatsa Nation, learning to read in English was not such a progressive, “pioneer” experience. Looking back at his time in a mission school, Goodbird recalled that he “found English a rather hard language to learn.” Even when he succeeded, all he received from many in his community when he came home from school was grief: “the older Indians would laugh at any who tried to learn to read.”3 Although historians of nineteenth-century America have long considered reading practices like those that appear in La Flesche’s autobiography pivotal to the period’s significant cultural transformations, few, if any, American history survey courses or anthologies allow students to explore America’s “reading revolution.” Yet, aside from the Civil War, perhaps no 166 PHILLIP H. ROUND other historical phenomenon has garnered as much recent historiographic attention as the era’s rapid expansion of print and readers. It was a time characterized by “a revolutionary transition from ‘intensive’ to ‘extensive’ reading” in which reading from a small, largely religious canon of texts was replaced by reading in “a modern, secularized and individual way . . . characterized by an eagerness to consume new and varied reading materials for information, and for private entertainment.”4 From William J. Gilmore’s Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life (1989) to Barbara Hochman’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution (2011), scholars have argued that in the nineteenth-century United States “reading was a crucially important . . . site of cultural enthusiasm, conflict, and anxiety.”5 In particular, the “growth of a new communications environment ” spawned an “increase in the significance of access to knowledge” and a “transformation of . . . everyday life . . . from one that was continuous to one characterized by novelty and changing commercial and cultural relations.”6 I believe that La Flesche’s brief reminiscence of one of the reading revolution’s most exemplary practices—oral recitation of poetry and prose passages from the McGuffey Reader—would serve history teachers well as FIGURE 11.1 McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader. Laguna Dialect (1882). Ayer 3A 593, Newberry Library, Chicago. America’s Indigenous Reading Revolution 167 a unique and engaging vantage point from which to present their students with this historical phenomenon. By placing American Indian literacy experiences at the center of their own students’ explorations of the reading revolution, instructors will benefit from the vividness of the printed and written materials produced by and for Native learners as well as by their first-person accounts of how it felt to undergo this revolution in epistemological and material practices “on the ground.” As people who were both subjects of and subject to this revolution in the production and consumption of printed matter, Native peoples in the United States were uniquely situated at the center of this cultural transformation, and their very visceral responses to these experiences provide some of the most vivid and detailed auto-ethnographic accounts of the reading revolution available. As an outgrowth of these changes in perceived literacy needs across all parts of the United States, educational reform movements blossomed, often first testing their pedagogical theories on Native students. From the introduction of the Lancasterian monitorial movement in American education...


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