Thursday, July 7, 2016

Reading Bone China as Historical Texts: An Unsettling Tea Party

I look at my china cabinet, hardwood and vintage glass with bunny rabbits in lace, lining each shelf. It is an heirloom from my grandmother Laura's aunt who immigrated to Canada from Norway, via Minnesota in the early 1900's. In it I keep lots of treasures, like hand painted wine glasses, dried rose petals, old greeting cards, chopsticks, pictures, flags, birthday candles, a birthday cheque I never cashed from my Grandma Lavine, baby teeth the tooth fairy left behind, and of course, I have my bone china.

I have a broken cup from my grandma Laura's pattern, Silver Maple. I have a six cup set of Bride's Choice, my pattern. Grandma Lavine never had a pattern, but I think I have one of her china cups in my mix and match arrangement. I've heard that it's stylish to use a different pattern for the cup and the saucer, so that's my excuse for my rag tag collection. I don't have any of my mom's pattern which is Spode, a white cup with a simple blue lining, but I can't remember the pattern name.

A year ago this past Canada Day, we had a tea party. It began in my garden, and then proceeded to a neighbor's garden, to view her beautiful lilies. My guests were Kete-ayah Alma Poitras and Dr. Carol Schick.

After viewing the gardens, and sharing stories about plants and animals, we went inside to my dining room. My daughters had set the table with bone china. Victoria had made bannock, and we sat down to Canada Day tea.

A few weeks before, I had been visiting with Dr. Michael Cappello at the University of Regina when Dr. Carol Schick passed by. Mike and Carol are mentors of mine in Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Education. I mentioned that I had been working on a Treaty song with Elder Alma Poitras, and they told me that she would be taking their graduate studies class that summer. We considered how an elder would be a benefit to their classes, but both professors were aware that she should not be expected "on demand" to perform elder roles when she chose to be there as a student. I suggested that if they wanted to come to my house on Canada Day, Alma would be there, because she was helping me with Cree pronunciation for the song. I agreed to contact Alma, and Carol made plans to join us. to speak with Alma further, offering tobacco, if appropriate, for the times she would speak as an elder in the class.

On Canada Day, our conversation at the table was varied like my tea cups. I don't remember if it was Carol, Alma, my husband Michael, or daughter Victoria, but someone brought up the fact that buffalo bones had been shipped to England to be used in bone china. Regina, named for the Queen, head of our colony, had originally been called Pile of Bones for this very reason.

I do remember Alma saying a few words about the slaughtering of the buffalo, and that glimpse into her worldview has stayed with me, the suffering of not only her people, but the suffering of this great animal which was tied in all ways to her peoples' wellbeing.

No one mentioned that we were eating off china plates and our lips were touching china cups, but there we were, with colonization on the tips of our tongues.

After tea, Alma and I sang our Treaty song for Carol and the family. Then, Carol offered tobacco to Alma and asked for her help as an Elder.

Carol and Alma looking at the class schedule together.
After the tea party, Alma stayed and we worked a little longer on the Treaty song because we were going to sing at the Treaty Law School which Alma's daughter, Evelyn Poitras, had organized at the University of Regina as part of her doctoral academics.

Elder Alma and I were to sing right after a presentation by James Daschuck author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life.

Daschuck showed a supporting slide of Pile of Bones, and it took me right back to our Canada Day tea party. Here's a pile of bone china.


As I prepare for the Historical Thinking Summer Institute in Vancouver next week, I have bring an artifact, at least ten years old, that means something to me. I start looking at my china.

I turn the cup over and see the date, 1864. I do some googling, and find that most likely, this cup was made in the 1940's, well after Pile of Bones had been renamed.

As part of my preparations for the Historical Thinking Institute, I am reading "On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy" by Samuel S. Wineburg from the University of Washington who did research with eight historians and eight top-level history students. He wanted each group to rate seven "echoes" or historical documents on a scale from most reliable to least reliable. As an educational psychologist and someone interested in historical thinking, Wineburg wanted to examine how people read texts for historical purposes.
I wondered what would be seven documents or artifacts that I could use, or consider, similarly to the ones in his study. So far, I have my china cabinet, china websites found on google, tea conversations with Carol, garden and tea conversations with Alma, my story of our tea party, my Treaty song, and my picture of Daschuck's use of the historic picture.
I wonder what history text books from Saskatchewan say about the naming and renaming of Regina?
Would the textbook be reliable or unreliable? How would I know? How would my students know?

Wineburg was surprised and not surprised that the historians were able to talk back to the historical texts, like a prosecuting lawyer, examining the reliability of each piece of evidence. In fact, the historians had multiple voices going on in their heads as they teased, laughed with, insulted, mocked, and cajoled the authors of each contribution. As they read the evidence, they were also writing meaning into it, given each historians' insights.

On the other hand, the students were more like jurors, in the courtroom metaphor, listening to the testimony, but not asking questions or interrogating anyone. The students were top-notch comprehension strategists; however, they did not understand that reality, and historical stories, are constructed. Not only did the authors of the historical echoes enter their creation using their hearts and mind, but those who are making sense of the echoes also must use their hearts and minds.

The students rated the textbook as the most reliable of the seven. The historians rated the textbook as the least reliable. This must be why the subtitle of this paper is called, "Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy".

To think historically, we must consider "sourcing heuristic" which means "the practice of reading the source of the document before reading the actual text." To ignore the inherent biases and humanness of history and storytelling is borderline dishonest.
How would I go about teaching a lesson or writing a paper called, "Reading Bone China as Historical Texts: An Unsettling Tea Party" or "Reading Bone China as Historical Texts: Colonization on the Tips of their Tongues"? "As Long as the Grass Grows: A Treaty Song from Saskatchewan" by Sheena Koops.

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