Saturday, February 16, 2013

Great Basin Indians

Great Basin Indians
by Melissa McDaniel
Heinemann, 2012.  48 pgs. Nonfiction

     Heinemann's First Nations of North America series is a good idea, but if the other entries in the set are as inconsistent, as factually selective, and sometimes as sketchy as this volume, the series is in trouble. The book looks great--the cover art is impressive and the photographs in the text are helpful and evocative. But these are the problems I see:  The author places great emphasis on the aridity of the land and the difficulty of finding food in a dry land.  Although this is certainly true for those Indians who lived in the West desert, it was not for the Indians such as the Bannock and the Northern Shoshone (Utes) who lived near Bear Lake, Utah Lake, and in southern Idaho.  Also, the tribe which had the most trouble eking out an existence were the Goshutes, who are never mentioned in this book. Also, the text states that life was hard because not only was their not much precipitation, but "many of the lakes" were salty. No examples of these salty lakes are given and none of the many fresh water lakes and streams are mentioned. On pages 18 and 19 the author notes the brutal cold and long winters characteristic of the Great Basin, but five pages later she states that "for much of the year the weather was warm, so [the Indians] did not need elaborate shelters."  Although this may have been true for the areas which now constitute southern Nevada and eastern California, it was certainly not true for northern Utah, any of Idaho, or any of Wyoming. The book concludes with good recommendations for additional reading, but no original source materials are cited.  One wonders if any were used. There is so much good material in this book that it is a great shame it is essentially ruined by omissions and inconsistencies.  The problem is, few if any young people are equipped to distinguish between fact and fiction, particularly when the book is artfully constructed and attractive, which makes the whole book worthless. (This is the second time to our knowledge that a Heinemann title has given the Mountain West inaccurate shrift.  The Utah book in one of their states series had Mt. Timpanogos in Salt Lake county and identifies an Arab-American Days of  '47 participant as a "Mormon woman" in traditional pioneer dress.)  With the shift in schools to the study of quality nonfiction in the service of Common Core standards, publishers of nonfiction books for children are assuming a greatly increased importance in the American educational landscape. Heinemann is a major player in this market and one hopes they will make sure their products are of uniformly high quality because there should be no such thing as "close enough" in the nonfiction business.

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