A new children’s Nevada history book is a big leap forward—and a couple of steps back
A new Nevada history textbook for young children has been published, and historians say it is an improvement over earlier texts, but it still has significant accuracy problems.
Nevada/Our Home by Gary BeDunnah is published by Gibbs Smith, a Utah publisher. It is aimed at a fourth-grade audience.
Nevada history books for young readers have normally been unfit for classroom use, patronizing the young readers or reading like chamber of commerce versions of history. Historian Guy Louis Rocha says Nevada/Our Home is not like those volumes.
Rocha reviewed the book for the publisher and offered suggestions and corrections. He said in spite of his efforts, many errors were retained and appear in the new edition. Rocha said he was not given a copy of the manuscript to read, but rather a previous 1990s version of the book titled Discovering Nevada.
Gibbs Smith editor Kris Brunson said she did not realize that Rocha wished to examine the manuscript and that a publisher “must rely on our authors to give us the most accurate information possible, and … it is difficult to be 100 percent accurate all the time.”
Rocha said that he still recommends the book for classroom use.
“It’s still a better text than virtually all the others. I can’t think of a text that is laid out better, better conceptualized, better organized than this book.”
He said the book is strongest “in terms of critical analysis and making young people, getting young people, inspiring young people, prompting young people to think about concepts.” He is particularly taken by items scattered through the book under the common heading “Consider Character” that relate Nevada history to issues of values and the readers’ own traits. In chapter 8, for instance, the “Consider Character” feature reads:
“At the beginning of this chapter, you read about a man named Jim Butler. He leased land to prospectors who promised to give him part of the gold or silver they found. Because they kept their word, these prospectors showed the trait of honesty. How important is it to be honest today? Do you keep your promises? For one week, try keeping an honesty journal. Write down when you choose to be honest and when you don’t. Did you notice when others were honest or not honest? Did you find it hard to be honest? Why?”
Rocha said, “That’s powerful. That is powerful. There’s no history text that really deals with what I call value transmission. This book could have been a home run, could have been a grand slam. … [Young readers] should certainly learn at a certain level a certain amount of history about a place, and I think it should be accurate, and I think that’s essential. But people should also ask some fundamental questions about relationships like this whole leasing system. Butler in fact did trust these guys, and I don’t know if they all did right by him or not, but that’s what it was all about, was handshake deals. And what is that? Honesty. And then asking you about yourself—'Did you make a commitment to somebody? Did you keep it?’ “
“What saddens me so is I love this book in many, many ways.” he said. “And yet I am angry that it’s flawed because the content management was so low. … It was avoidable, absolutely it was avoidable.”
Rocha is sensitive about the inaccuracies that occur because he was a consultant on the book, and his name is in the front, leaving the reader with the impression that he attests to its accuracy.
Editor Brunson says that the ancillary material Rocha likes was “written by our education director and myself,” not by the author.
It’s a busy book. There’s a lot going on besides the basic narrative—USA Today-style graphics, items like “Consider Character,” exercises and activities, profiles of numerous historical Nevada figures, and a lot of illustrations.
Rocha says the ancillary material is often stronger than the basic narrative of the book. “You’ve got a Nevada portrait of Bill Tomiyasu. I was very impressed. This kind of insertion of people and diversity, it works for me.” Tomiyasu was a U.S. citizen who worked on the Hoover Dam project and was not interned during World War II but did leave California to farm in Las Vegas. There are dozens of such profiles scattered throughout the book.
• The book says explorer John C. Fremont had to abandon a cannon in the present site of Nevada and that people have been searching for it in the Potosi Mountains ever since. The Potosis are near Las Vegas. “The cannon was discarded somewhere north of present day Bridgeport, California, near the west fork of the Walker River,” Rocha said. That’s half the state and several hundred miles north of the Potosi Mountains.
• The importance of Las Vegas’s pioneering Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas is described, but the book says that the “idea for the hotel came from a young New York gangster by the name of Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel.” The hotel project was actually developed and begun by Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson. Seigel came in later. Other details, such as the date of the hotel’s opening, are also inaccurate.
• The book says of “Home Means Nevada” that “Nevada’s state song was written by an immigrant. An immigrant is a person who lives in a country other than where he or she was born. Bertha Raffetto came to Nevada from Italy.” In fact, Raffetto was born in Iowa. She was married to an Italo-American who was also born in the United States. The word immigrant is highlighted in the text. “They wanted to introduce the concept of ‘immigrant,’” Rocha said. “And somebody just looking at her last name made two assumptions—one, that she was Italian, which she wasn’t, and two, she was an immigrant, which she wasn’t. That’s egregious, really.”
Like many textbooks, it puts an upside spin on historical events or otherwise screens out certain aspects. A profile of the Washo basketweaver Dat So La Lee mentions her association with Carson City’s Cohn family but does not describe their exploitation of her. There is a chapter on the free enterprise system, a status not accorded to other systems, and Nevada has a rich history with socialism in the early 20th century mining camps. A sanitized version of Sarah Winnemucca’s life lists her accomplishments but does not mention the bitter opposition she drew from many tribal members for collaborating with the U.S. Army and for helping sell U.S. government policies to tribes only to see those tribes betrayed.
Rocha says that’s appropriate for the fourth grade, though he might have offered the readers a bit more of the conflict and subtleties of the state’s history. “I don’t have a real problem with that,” he said. He used the Pyramid Lake war, which was begun because white men kidnapped and raped some Native American girls, as an exposition of how such things are handled in textbooks. As written, he said, the book entirely ignored the sexual assault. It read, “It happened when two Native American girls were kidnapped by white men.” Rocha recommended that the sentence be changed to read “kidnapped and abused by white men.”
“Now, don’t go into any more detail,” Rocha said. “I mean, fourth graders have already been introduced in our world today that the fact adults can abuse them. Now, at seventh grade, you introduce more, and at eleventh grade, you tell it like it is.”
The publisher did not make the change, and Rocha understands that decision. “They could have introduced a little bit more of the conflict issue, but not a lot. I still feel that [fourth graders should be] allowed a certain amount of innocence, too.”