Dear America and The Royal Diaries as “Settling Narratives” (Primary Post)

In Bradford’s gloss of Lynne Cheney and Robin Priess Glasser’s America: A Patriotic Primer, Bradford explains that Cheney and Glasser’s examples of Native Americans – Pocahontas, Sequoyah, Tecumseh and Sacajawea – cast Indigenous people in the United States as “friends and helpers to the colonists” and as an “assimilated, docile presence within the nation” (2). What A Patriotic Primer doesn’t provide is the reality of “colonized people displaced by waves of settlers” (1). 

Bradford looks primarily at texts where the reality of colonization is displaced through the use of the “romanticization” of native people, and through transforming native people into the aforementioned friendly, docile, assimilated presence. In this post on primary texts, I wanted to draw our attention to a corpus of texts that I think does similar work – it emphasizes USian exceptionalism and uses strategies of forgetting – while at the same time providing the reality – or at least, a pseudo-reality – of “colonized people displaced by waves of settlers.” I speak, of course, of my childhood companions: the Dear America series and the Royal Diaries.

The Dear America series and the Royal Diaries were both put out by Scholastic Press in the late 1990s. Each of the Dear America books is written as a diary from the perspective of a young woman living through a significant period of US history (the revolution, the civil war, the sinking of the titanic etc.). Each of the Royal Diaries is written as a diary from the perspective of a known “princess” during her teenage years (the future queen Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette, Nzingha, Mary, Queen of Scots etc.)

There are thirty six books in the original Dear America series (it was relaunched in 2010), and twenty in the Royal Diaries series. The books that include Native American protagonists are:

  1. My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880, by Anne Rinaldi
  2. The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, New Mexico, 1864, by Ann Turner
  3. Kaiulani: The People’s Princess, Hawaii, 1889 by Ellen Emerson White
  4. Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets, Massachusetts-Rhode Island, 1653 by Patricia Clark Smith
  5. Lady of Palenque: Flower of Bacal, Mesoamerica, A.D. 749 by Anna Kirwan
  6. Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490 by Edwidge Danticat

Of these six books, only one – Lady Of Palenque – does not center around colonial violence and the colonial displacement of indigenous people. My Heart is on the Ground takes place at the Carlisle Indian School, founded by Richard Henry Pratt, whose motto for the school was “Kill the Indian, Save the Child”; the protagonist of The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow is one of the people forcibly removed by federal forces onto a reservation through the trail of tears. Kaiulani, Weetamoo and Anacaona are all indigenous leaders who (unsuccessfully) fought colonial expansion in the Americas.


Nor are these books that shy away from portraying colonial violence. Kaiulani: The People’s Princess portrays both Kaiulani’s attempts to stop the USA from annexing Hawaii and the injustice of the colonial state’s refusal to negotiate with her. Anacaona depicts the brutality of the european invaders of Haiti: readers see the invaders murdering children, shooting civilians and cutting off indigenous peoples’ hands. In My Heart is on the Ground, several of Nannie’s friends die at the Carlisle Indian School, while others run due to the violence of the teaching techniques. And obviously, The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow centers around one of the most infamous examples of colonial violence in USian history – the trail of tears. One could argue, thus, that these books are exceptions to the trend Bradford identities – that they are trying to remember the colonial violence that shaped the United States, rather than trying to repress this history in order to build a narrative of american exceptionalism.

Yet although these books certainly do not romanticize colonial violence, if we look below the surface, they also seem to be working towards a project of indigenous assimilation. On an editorial level, all of the Royal Diaries (with the exception of Lady Of Palenque) portray native civilizations that are on the verge of being destroyed, conquered or displaced. Even if some of the books, like Weetamoo and Kaiulani, do not show the death of their heroine in the narrative, the reader needs only flip a few pages to the historical note to discover how the protagonist died, and to learn about the conquest and displacement of the protagonists’ people by the colonial state. On one level, these texts create sympathy for these indigenous heroes, and turning to the historical note may lead readers to question the colonial apparatus that led to their death. By sympathizing (through fiction) with an indigenous hero, a reader may be more likely to question ideologies like american exceptionalism and manifest destiny. On another level, however, these historical notes create a sense of the inevitability of colonialism. No matter how intelligent, how brave, how resourceful and strategic these leaders are, they all fail. And since three of the four indigenous leaders in the Royal Diaries *do* fail (and the last one lives too early to ever encounter the colonial apparatus), the meta-narrative these diaries construct is one where colonialism is a historical certainty, and anyone who opposes it is doomed to tragic failure. They can be sympathetic, yes – but they cannot stop the march of “manifest destiny.” So while individually, each of these texts may post a challenge to the colonial apparatus, taken together, they simply reinforce the power of the colonial state, and the inevitability of the conquest of indigenous people.

Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose takes the “inevitability” of manifest destiny to the extreme.



Throughout the entire book, both in terms of plot and on the meta level of Ann Rinaldi and Scholastic’s editorial decisions, what comes through is the inevitability of whiteness and white assimilation. While the Carlisle Indian School’s methods are depicted as brutal, the school is, in the end, portrayed as the only good option for native children. Children who refuse to assimilate either die, or inevitably change their minds. When Nannie Little Rose’s brother runs away from Carlisle, he eventually comes back, having realized that Carlisle is the best option for him (a completely unrealistic scenario, given that nearly 2,000 of the school’s 10,000 students ran away, never to return). The character with the closest connection to her native heritage, Lucy Pretty Eagle, has an epileptic fit while she is attempting to go into a spirit trance; the teachers mistake her epilepsy for death and bury her while she is still alive. The message is clear: white culture will destroy any attempts to remain close to one’s native heritage. The school is portrayed as a positive experience for most children. The book’s proofreader, Genevieve Bell, even remarked on this tendency when she finished proofreading, telling the editor:

At some points the diary reads almost as an apology for assimilation, as though being at Carlisle, while painful and unpleasant,was ultimately a good thing. I am not sure that this is the tone that Ann Rinaldi wants to strike, nor am I certain it is the experience of most Carlisle students (…) This was a project and an agenda that many Native Americans actively resisted at the time and remain highly critical of today. I think perhaps your author’s note needs to acknowledge that Ann Rinaldi is not Native American, and that there were many different ways to be at Carlisle of which Nannie’s is just one. Many students did not want to be school teachers, they did not want to be pilgrims, they did not want to be in school. They wanted to be in their homes, in their communities, with their families. And many of their descendants are very angry about the ways that parents and grandparents were denied their own culture. Most Native Americans would not like to see their ancestors’ experiences written about this way (…) the consensus is that this was not a good place and that the best we can do about it now is celebrate the students who survived with their cultural identity intact and mourn those who did not. I am not sure that this diary does either of those things. ( )

Ann Rinaldi’s author note is takes the inevitability of whiteness to the extreme. She visited the Carlisle Indian School, including the school’s cemetery and saw:

“dozens of white headstones bearing the names of Native-American children from all tribes who had died while at the school. The names, with the tribes inscribed underneath, were so lyrical that they leapt out at me and took on instant personalities. Although many of these children attended Carlisle at dates later than that of my story, I used some of their names for classmates of Nannie Little Rose. … I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they now reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it.” (my emphasis)

As many, many commenters have pointed out, Ann Rinaldi’s act of appropriation in choosing to use the names of real children who died at Carlisle without the permission of their descendants or their tribes is deeply offensive. To retroactively give herself permission by creating a racist fantasy in which these children give consent from the “Happy Hunting Ground” – a symbol, as Bradford would point out, not of actual native culture, but of a white fantasy and appropriation of native culture – serves as a further act of appropriation. Here, the role of Native people – of real, native children – is to become part of a white fantasy, to help play a role in ultimately celebrating the school that cost them their lives. In the most vivid example of the tendency I’ve been chronicling, colonial violence against native people helps enact a form of colonial apologia, by showing the inevitability of the colonial expansion. The dead children are mourned in the text, yes, but the creation of America – and of Nannie Little Rose’s assimilation – is celebrated.

Together, all of these texts, while acknowledging the atrocity of colonial violence, also enact a form of colonial apologia and reinforce the “myth of the (USA’s) own foundation” – manifest destiny (Bradford 5).

Sources for the controversy around My Heart Is On The Ground:

  1. Blog post from Genevieve Bell, Ann Rinaldi’s fact-checker, who encouraged her not to use the dead children’s names.
  2. A Critical Review of Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart is On The Ground. 
  3. Goals for Writing and Reviewing Books With Native American Themes