Get Indians Out of the Cupboard!


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And for those of you who don't know, November is not only National Novel Writing Month, it is also Native American Heritage months!

Get the Indians Out of the Cupboard

  • NOV. 9TH, 2009 AT 7:41 AM

Indians in the Cupboard? Perhaps some find this phrase offensive. I hope so because I want to spark discussion about stereotyping Native Americans.

A look at Alternative World Views: Whose stories? Whose voices? Contemporary multicultural books – where are they; who is writing them; how do we find them?

What is the problem?

Let’s look at three popular classics: Little House on the Prairie (Wilder ), Peter Pan (James Barrie, 1905?), and Indian in the Cupboard (Banks, 1980). These books are as popular today and used in classrooms as they were when first published.

All have characters that “resemble” American Indians – they have black hair, dark skin, the women wear braids, they live in tipis and carry tomahawks, bows and arrows. These characters are typical stereotypes. Stereotypes hurt children. Instead of expanding awareness and appreciation, stereotyping limits understanding and increases separation between people. Stereotypes build walls between “we” and “they.” Stereotyping in any form is poor substitute for getting to know individuals at a meaningful level.

The first goal of this discussion is to increase awareness of the subtle racism that exists in the literature we write for children.

A second goal is to increase awareness of the mis-information and perpetuation of inaccurate myths -- in our history books, nonfiction picture books, holiday books, and so on.

My third goal is to increase awareness of books that represent native people accurately as individuals who may live in cities or reservations, work in schools, hospitals or farms. Debby and I will suggest lists where you can find these books, the awards that celebrate them, the blogs that discuss them.

First comes awareness and then follows change.

Look at a photograph and listen with new ears.” Alberto Rios

Kathy Short (University of Arizona) speaks eloquently about attitude: “Teaching for intercultural understanding involves far more than lessons on human relations and sensitivity training or country units on only the most visible elements of culture, such as food, fashion, folklore, famous people and festivals…Interculturalism is not a unit, activity, or book, but an attitude of mind.”

I was about to read my book, Navajo Year, Walk Through Many Seasons, to my friend’s five-year old grandson. I pointed out that I live on the Navajo Nation Reservation. He looked up at me, eyes round, “Have you ever gotten shot by a bow and arrow?”

I explained that Navajo are friendly, like his neighbors. They don’t gallop around on horses shooting arrows. He interrupted –

“But what about their tipis?”

“Nope, no tipis.” He shook his head, frowned at me. Obviously I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“Indians live in tipis and shoot with bows and arrows. See, it shows it right here in this book.”

“What book?”

He showed me, Peter Pan. How could I argue with Peter Pan?

1. Stereotypes: The Indians in Peter Pan live in tipis, carry tomahawks, wear war paint. For many children these cartoon characters are their only image. There is no difference noted between the tribes, such as Navajo, Cherokee, Apache, Abenaki. Amazing that even today, books and films, videos continue to portray cartoonish caricatures – people with broad faces and long braids.

Stereotypes are not dead, nor are they dying. In a recent American Indians in Children’s Literature.blogspot (11/2009) Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) lists dozens of stereotypes -- war paint, squaws, papooses, scalping, war paths and chiefs. Her list goes on and on.

2. Tokenism to full-board inclusion. Indian characters are included in folk stories about Thanksgiving and Columbus. What real Indian can you name? Their history and people are part of all American history, arts, sciences, sports, music, and authors/illustrators. The body of children’s nonfiction literature -- biographies, natural history, science, social science, athletes –includes very few American Indians or Alaskan natives. In the publishing world today, the smallest group of books is still books by or about American Indians.

The field is not all glum. Books are being written that celebrate American Indians as individuals, both in fiction and nonfiction. Joseph Bruchac has written hundreds of excellent books. Some outstanding examples include his picture-book biography, Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path, and A Boy Called Slow, the True Story of Sitting Bull, and his middle-grade historical novel, Hidden Roots. In The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie brings the unique voice of Junior who tells it like it is – being an adolescent and growing up in “two worlds.”

Past tense: Most published books about American Indians focus on the past as if these people have not continued to thrive and change. Just as people living in the Midwest no longer live in sod houses as described in the “Little House” series, people from tribes in the Midwest no longer live in tipis. Where are the books about contemporary heroes and heroines? Ask a child to name an American Indian and you might hear them say Pocahantas or Geronimo. What about writers like Michael Lacapa or Cynthia Leitich Smith; athletes like Notah Begay (golfer) or Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox baseball player) Artists like Alan Houser or RC Gorman, performers like Buffy Saint Marie or R. Carlos Nakai? Filmmakers like Sherman Alexie or Sandra Sunrising Osawa?

Where are the books that present accurate images of outstanding American Indians to inspire young people today? Why are there still stereotypes that present images of “savages” running around wearing breech cloths or war paint?

3. Inaccurate history: History books are written by the victors. As writers or teachers we can encourage the critical thinking skills of our readers. Look at history from both sides. Is Columbus a hero to American Indians? Why is the story of the “discovered people” seldom told from their point of view?

Marc Aronson says it well in this paragraph:

"Rather than examine famous peoples’ lives or historical movements critically, today’s children’s books often leave kids with little more than legends—George Washington and the cherry tree; Thomas Jefferson, the sage of Monticello, minus any mention of Sally Hemings, the young slave with whom current DNA evidence shows he fathered six children; our nation’s “glorious” Westward expansion, told exclusively through images of heroic whites and savage Indians. The point of overturning these and other myths isn’t simply to set the record straight; it’s to point out that our interpretation of history is constantly being challenged, debated, and revised. The only way we can bring that crucial message to young people is if we risk sharing our doubts about the very accounts they were taught in elementary school. If we do that, students may at first feel like they’ve been fooled. But just as in middle-grade and YA novels that turn fairy tales upside down and inside out, young people will have an opportunity to use what they’ve learned as a baseline to develop new, more accurate understandings—which is precisely what we want."

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