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‘Electa Quinney’ tells tale of Native American educator’s travels

The end of the school year can be very sad.

You might have to say goodbye to friends; either you won’t see them for a few months or ever, because they’re moving. You’ll leave behind a favorite class, your spot in the lunchroom, and maybe your favorite teacher.

But what if he or she left you?  In “Electa Quinney: Stockbridge Teacher” by Karyn Saemann, you’ll read about miles and milestones one educator achieved more than 150 years ago.

When Electa Quinney was born in an Indian village in New York in 1807, life for her was different than for most Native American children.

Electa was a Stockbridge Indian. For many years, her ancestors had woven parts of European culture into their daily lives. Stockbridge Indians, at the time Electa was born, had Christian churches, farms and livestock, and they fluently spoke English. They had formal schools, too, though Electa went away to boarding school when she was about 7 years old.

By the time she was 15, she was a teacher with her own classroom.

In 1828, Electa left New York and moved to Wisconsin. Six years earlier, the Stockbridge (who had come from Massachusetts in 1785) were “pressured” to sell their New York land to newly-arrived immigrants. With nowhere to go, they accepted an offer of a place to live from the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin. By moving to Wisconsin and accepting a job at a school near Green Bay, Electa became the state’s first public schoolteacher.

That didn’t mean she only taught school, though!  Electa reportedly enjoyed an active social life of picnics, dances, and canoeing. She met men who wanted to marry her but she “wanted to marry an Indian man” – which happened in 1833.

When Wisconsin became a U.S. Territory, Electa and her husband moved near the newly-created Indian Territory, near Missouri. Later, after being married a second time, Electa lived in several other states before moving back to Wisconsin.

By 1861, she’d endured many losses and was “having a hard time” making ends meet. Still, friends “saw her as a teacher” for the rest of her life: when they wrote letters to her, they apologized for misspellings.

Let me preface the rest of this column by saying that “Electa Quinney: Stockbridge Teacher” is not a bad book.

It is, however, a very thin premise for a biography.

In her first pages, author Karyn Saemann admits that details of Quinney’s life are sketchy, “like… a jigsaw puzzle.” What that ultimately means is a lot of extraneous information and fill, some of which has a tenuous connection to Quinney’s life. Again, it’s not bad information – kids will learn plenty from what they’ll read – but what they’ll read often doesn’t have anything to do, directly, with the subject of this book.

I wouldn’t exactly call this a summer read for your 7-to-11-year-old, but young historians might beg to differ.

The subject matter doesn’t completely match the title, but if Native American history is what your child likes, “Electa Quinney: Stockbridge Teacher” won’t make her sad.