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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

February 1, 2002

Sarah Noble sculpture under fire
Two parents claim it perpetuates stereotype of Native Americans

By Lynda Wellman

Is the sculpture at Sarah Noble Intermediate School in New Milford imparting the wrong message to students?

Two local parents think so.

The parents are concerned that the artwork, titled "Sarah Noble and her Friends," is sending a visual message of white superiority and perpetuates a stereotype that Native Americans are subservient.

School officials say the sculpture, which is located in the rotunda of the library media center, is meant to show harmonious relationships between two cultures and not to depict one culture as demeaning another.

"There was no intent to send any message," said the artist, former New Milford High School art teacher Dayle Elsesser, who was commissioned to do the sculpture.

"My only concerns were purely artistic," Mrs. Elsesser added.

She said since the sculpture was to be displayed in the library, she put a book in Sarah Noble's hands and wanted a calm stable structure so she chose the classical triangle position.

Peter Bayers, a parent and an English professor at Fairfield University who is a product of the New Milford school system, has written a letter to the Board of Education asking that the sculpture "be removed or radically altered."

A second letter elaborates on his first regarding stereotypes and claims that the sculpture and the book, "The Courage of Sarah Noble" which students read as part of the elementary school curriculum are inconsistent with goals expressed in a newsletter sent home about stereotypes.

Dr. Bayers, who has published works on Frontier and Western studies, agrees the sculpture is well-intentioned and admirable in that it promotes literacy.

"No one is purposefully trying to demean anyone," he said.

However, Dr. Bayers said, he believes the artwork, which he describes as putting Sarah in a position of power higher than the Native Americans, is "stereotyping whites as saviors of Native Americans" and "racially and or culturally superior."

He said it's an historical fact that European settlers thought of themselves as culturally and/or racially superior, and "images such as the sculpture which inadvertently reinforce and celebrate this view are painful reminders to most Native Americans of a darker side of American history."

"It's a mistake to celebrate this particular world view," Dr. Bayers said in a phone interview. "I'm not asking to change history. We shouldn't celebrate certain dark aspects of history."

Dr. Bayers said in his letter to the board that Sarah Noble was a product of her times, but "our children should not be a product of her times."

He also believes the book "The Courage of Sarah Noble" is "chock full of demeaning stereotypes."

Parent Ann Hartman said in a letter to the editor of The Greater New Milford Spectrum that the sculpture depicts Sarah Noble seemingly on a pedestal imparting knowledge to the Native American children (see Page S4). Mrs. Elsesser said Sarah is sitting on a log.

Ms. Hartman believes the message students are subtly getting when they view the sculpture is that "white children are superior," and she questions whether that's the message the community wants its children to take.

"I do not feel the sculpture represents a co-equal interchange," Ms. Hartman said in a phone interview. "It's elevating one group of people above another. I don't think it's a good thing to be seeing all the time."

Dr. Bayers believes the artwork "is terribly patronizing to Native Americans" and stereotypes them as "backwards, primitive peoples in need of white redemption from their savagery."

Chief Richard Velky, of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, said Monday when shown a photo of the sculpture that his initial "knee-jerk" reaction is, "I don't find it offensive."

"It's history... it's better to be said," Chief Velky remarked, adding, however, that he'd like to have more information about it.

Lesley Bowman, chairman of the New Milford school board, said Monday that Dr. Bayer's letters have been distributed to members of the board. She said she would like to hear what Dr. Bayers has to say but that any recommendation for a change would usually come from the administration.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Tom Mulvihill said he sees the sculpture as celebrating reading and portraying interaction between two cultures.

"I can appreciate Peter's view, but that's not how I see it personally and I haven't had others express his viewpoint," Mr. Mulvihill said.

He related that he had asked a representative of the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington to look at the sculpture.

Bill Gloade, assistant chairman of the IAIS and a Native American of Maine's Aroostook Band of Mi-Kmaq, said portraying the Native American children in the regalia they are wearing is not to his mind stereotyping.

He did suggest a more proper picture of history would be to show Sarah Noble reading to an interracial group of children, both Caucasian and Native American.

Mr. Gloade and Dr. Bayers also objected to the choice of book Sarah Noble was reading, "Pilgrim's Progress," and Mrs. Elsesser has since removed the title from the book.

Mr. Mulvihill said he is sharing Dr. Bayer's criticism of the "The Courage of Sarah Noble" with the second and third-grade teachers and that there would be discussion of its use at grade level meetings.

Dr. Bayers said he hopes all concerned would read his letters carefully. He said his letters speak for themselves and people need to have time to digest the information, reflect on it and do research on their own.

"Everyone concerned has to have a real understanding of why we might want to alter the sculpture," he said. "I thought it was a very important issue to raise.

"For me it's not just about Native Americans," Dr. Bayers explained. "It's also the larger question How do Europeans want to be represented? What aspects of our history do we want to celebrate?"

Beverly Regan, the Sarah Noble principal, said Mrs. Elsesser was commissioned to do a sculpture of Sarah Noble but after research the artist wanted to represent the Native American culture in the sculpture since the Native Americans had been a part of settling the area.

"We would be remiss if we didn't show the two cultures," Mrs. Regan said. "She's just reading and they are just there. I'm comfortable with it."

Dr. Bayers recommends that those interested in researching the issue read "Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century" by Fergus M. Bordewich, which he said is "an evenhanded, fair account of why issues like this matter." The National Education Association website www.nea.org has a link to information on Native American stereotyping, and the Anthropology Outreach Office of the Smithsonian Institute also has resources for further research on its web site: http:/nmnhwww.si.edu/anthro/outreach/outrch1.html

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