Sunday, May 06, 2007

The "scalp belt" in CADDIE WOODLAWN

(See additional material added in days following this post.)

I've been in Norman, Oklahoma the last few days, at a gathering of scholars interested in forming a Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. I think attendance was around 500, with 54 panels over three days. It was an international gathering, with indigenous scholars from many nations and many disciplines present.

In my paper, I talked some about problems with the ways that our traditional stories are retold and marketed to children. I've blogged about that here a few times, and written about it, too. "Proceed with Caution" is my most recent article on that topic. It was published in Language Arts, in January of this year.

I also talked some about historical fiction. Below is an excerpt from my talk about Caddie Woodlawn.

It was an invigorating conference. Next year we'll meet in Athens, Georgia. There is so much being done by Native scholars that would be of tremendous use to writers, editors, reviewers, teachers, librarians, and parents with an interest in American Indian people! It would be well worth your time to read books, articles, fiction, essays by those who organized the conference: Ines Hernandez-Avila, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Tsianina Lomawaima, Jean O'Brien, Robert Warrior, and Jace Weaver.

With deeper knowledge of American Indians, we all might be able to get books like Caddie Woodlawn off the shelves. They have use for study and discussion of stereotypes and bias, but the misinformation they impart to children must not continue to go unchecked.


The "scalp belt" in Caddie Woodlawn

When my daughter was in third grade, she was assigned to read a historical fiction novel called Caddie Woodlawn. First published in 1935, it won the most prestigious medal given to children’s books, the Newberry. This award ensures that a book will not go out of print, and that every library in the US will buy it. In the case of Caddie Woodlawn, it has been printed in other languages and made it into a movie. You can visit the Caddie Woodlawn Park near Menomonie Wisconsin, and sign the guest book. In a one year period, thousands of visitors from thirty-seven states and six foreign nations signed that guest book. If you live in that area of Wisconsin, your kids might go to Caddie Woodlawn Elementary School. Kids anywhere can buy and play with the Caddie Woodlawn paper dolls.

Caddie was a real person. Her name was Caddie Woodhouse. She told her granddaughter stories about her childhood. That granddaughter wrote those stories down. Hence, Caddie Woodlawn. The book is set in 1864 in western Wisconsin. On the second page of the book, Caddie and her brothers talk about Indians as they swim and float in the river:

“Do you think the Indians around here would ever get mad and massacre folks like they did up north?” wondered Warren, tying his shirt up in a bundle.

“No, sir,” said Tom, “not these Indians!”

“Not Indian John, anyhow,” said Caddie. She had just unfastened the many troublesome little buttons on the back of her tight-waisted dress. “No, not Indian John!” she repeated decidedly… “Even if he does have a scalp belt,” she added. The thought of the scalp belt always made her hair prickle…”

Caddie and her brothers come ashore at an Indian camp and quietly watch them work on a canoe. The text reads “Even friendly Indians commanded fear and respect in those days.” The Indians are fascinated with this particular family because unlike other whites they’ve seen, these ones have hair that is “the color of flame and sunset.”

Caddie is a tom-boy, and people ask her mother when she is going to make “a young lady out of this wild Indian.” Over and over, Indians visit Caddie’s family, hungry. Caddie’s mother, “frightened nearly out of her wits” feeds them bread and beans. According to the concordance at the Amazon website, “Indian” and “scalp” are among the 100 most frequently used words in the book, which is over 250 pages in length.

While the word scalp occurs frequently in any book like this, its context here is worth a closer look. Caddie is a friend of the Indians. Most of the townspeople are not. Fearing a “massacree” a group plans to go to Indian John’s camp and kill all the Indians there. The climax of the book is that Caddie sneaks out and rides a horse over a frozen river to warn Indian John. They decide they have to leave, but before they go, Indian John asks Caddie to keep his “scalp belt.” The scalp belt was his father’s. The scalps on it are from Indians his father killed. Caddie accepts the gift. She and her brothers decide to have a scalp belt show to show it off to their friends. They call it “Big Chief Bloody Tomahawk’s favorite scalp belt” and charge admission to see it.

I can go through Caddie Woodlawn, noting bias sprinkled throughout the story. I can point out problematic words like “squaw” and the repeated use of “brave” to refer to Native men. But I’m not a historian, and there are things that I have to read to be able to do a thorough analysis of the story.

For example: What is a scalp belt? I did a search of google web, google scholar, and google books and found hundreds---literally---hundreds of references to scalp belt, but most of them were to lesson plans and reviews of Caddie Woodlawn. I did a search using JSTOR (a cross-disciplinary database of scholarly journals), and was unable to locate the phrase. At this point, I conclude that there was, and is, no such thing as a “scalp belt.” Instead, it is the fanciful creation of Caddie Woodhouse (known to us as Caddie Woodlawn) or Carol Ryrie Brink, the author of Caddie Woodlawn (and granddaughter of Caddie Woodlawn). The author says all the people in the story are real. I wonder who Indian John was, and what tribe he belonged to. I wonder about the fears of the white families, the references to a massacre in which “the Indians of Minnesota had killed a thousand white people, burning their houses and destroying their crops.” When I read these books, I wonder, what is, and where is, the truth?

Update: May 7, 2007

Below are additional passages from the "scalp belt" material in the book. And, on my other blog, Images of Indians in Children's Books, I've posted an illustration from the book. When I have access to a scanner, I'll post a better image. For now, I'm making-do with a photo taken with my camera phone. (Note: There is a LOT of biased content about American Indians all through the book. In this particular instance, I'm focusing on the "scalp belt.")

p. 147: Passage where Indian John gives Caddie the scalp belt

"Look, Missee Red Hair. You keep scalp belt, too?"

"The scalp belt?" She felt the old prickling sensation up where her scalp lock grew as she looked at the belt with its gruesome decorations of human hair.

"Him very old," said John, picking up the belt with calm familiarity. "John's father, great chief, him take many scalps. Now John no do. John have many friend. John no want scalp. You keep?" John held it out.

Gingerly, with the tips of her thumb and first finger, Caddie took it.

p. 150: Description of scalp belt

Hetty and little Minnie crowded after Tom and Warren. It was a simple buckskin belt ornamented with colored beads, and from it hung three long tails of black hair, each with a bit of shriveled skin at the end."


k8 said...

My mom gave me a copy of Caddie when I was in elementary school (ages upon ages ago). Knowing what I know now, I've been afraid to look at it again. I first read the dread Little House on The Prairie as an adult, and I was horrified. I don't know if I have a point here, other than I think I do need to look the book over as an adult, to see what there is to see. Knowing that kids still read these, I should be able to engage them in critical conversation about the text.

J. L. Bell said...

Three "scalp belt and bundles" are mentioned in the record of a meeting between Sir William Johnson and representatives of the "Mohawks, Conajoharees, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Cayougas, Onondagas, Senecas, Delawares, Shawwanese, and Monseys" on 6 Aug 1756. These records were published in the Pennsylvania Archives, readable through Google Book.

W. M. Beauchamp's article "Wampum Used in Council and as Currency" in the Jan-Feb 1898 American Antiquarian states: "Chain, covenant, and scalp belts were often mentioned in the 18th century. The latter was a commission to take a scalp, or bring it back." On 22 May 1757, Sir William was recorded as giving such a belt to "Nickus Hance, alias Taicarihogo, a Canajoharie chief."

Before publishing anything on this topic, you may wish to delve more deeply in Google Book resources.

Now those early references differ from the "scalp belt" described in Caddie Woodlawn, which is a belt with human scalps attached to it. The author of that book was simply replicating a common usage of the time, however. Looking at Google Book citations shows that referring to scalps on one's belt had become so widespread in American English in the early 20th century that it seems to pop up most often as a metaphor for achieving a victory over someone or something, not in direct connection to Native people.

Looking further for the phrases "scalps on his belt" and "scalps on their belts" in "Full View" books (i.e., mostly published before 1923) produces several descriptions of men on the North American frontier—both Native and of European ancestry—so attired. Some come from fiction, others from nonfiction. Such references are most likely the source of the metaphor and of the Caddie Woodlawn artifact.

Gwen said...

Hi Debbie,
I purchased the Caddie Woodlawn book and its companion teaching guide (Teacher Created Resources, 1994) last summer when a much-lauded new children's book on the Dakota-US war by Jan Schultz was published. My intent was to review the books for their accuracy in portraying Indian people and historic events as part of my project on depiction of Dakota people in recently published fiction and non-fiction works.

Deeply disturbed by the new book, I have yet to read Brink's, but my edition (1990) has the children looking at the scalp belt on page 152. It appears to be fully beaded in a geometric design (typical Western Plains style) with three "scalps" hanging from it.

The cover of the teacher's guide is illustrated with a smiling pioneer girl and in the background is an "Indian" with a mohawk and breechcloth, shirtless of course. There are no projects associated with the scalp belt except quizzes on plot and quotation identification.

Section 3 (Chapters 12-16) has an activity on prejudice which includes designing a poster that "shows some peaceful ways to end prejudice" (22). For the culminating activity, "Caddie Woodlawn Day," the guide suggests having students "make clothes like the pioneers wore ... bow ties, kerchiefs, chaps, aprons, long dresses, knickers, top hats, and coon skin caps" and what Indians "might have worn, such as headbands and moccasins" (38). I think the problem there is obvious. It also lists making a map of where Indians lived in Wisconsin in the 1860s.

J. L. Bell said...

Here are a couple more references linking scalps, belts, and (various) Native Americans before Caddie Woodlawn readable through Google Book.

In anthropologist George A. Dorsey's The Pawnee Mythology (1906), the story of Handsome-Boy says the hero "rushed into battle and killed four with the spear. Each time he took a scalp and hung it on his belt, so that when he went to the lodge of the mourners he took four scalps from his belt and have them and the spear to the people who were mourning."

Before 1847 Lydia Maria Child, the ante-bellum reformer, wrote a story called "The Falls of St. Anthony," supposedly "Founded on an Indian [Sioux] Tradition," that said of a young character, "Already, he carried at his belt the scalp of a boy older and bigger than himself..."

Those references treat wearing scalps on one's belt with different levels of approval, to be sure. Neither feeds directly into the artifact that plays a role in Caddie Woodlawn. But there might be a progression from an actual practice of hanging scalps temporarily during or after battle to wearing them (also temporarily?) to show off to the novel's (unsupported?) depiction of such a belt as a family heirloom.

To use Google to search for more references without having to hack one's way through all those Caddie Woodlawn references, put "-Caddie" or "-Woodlawn" among the search terms. That hyphen should eliminate webpages with those terms on them.

Heather Ivester said...

This is an interesting discussion. I read that Carol Ryrie Brink was an orphan, raised by her grandmother, who told her many stories about pioneer life in the 1860s.

It would be helpful to find more first-person narratives of life on the Wisconsin frontier during this time period.

We haven't finished reading Caddie Woodlawn yet, but it's interesting to contrast the view of Native Americans with the more recent Kaya series, published by American Girl. We like these books a lot.

Fool's Gold said...

The line that always got me was "the red was like music to their half-savage eyes" (page. 163). It's one of those things that once you've started noticing non-blatant prejudice, jumps out at you.

The question of whether the 'half-breed' boys were completely wild and without manners due to age or their race is something that I'm not willing to give the benefit of the doubt to, but is worth mentioning.

Marjorie said...

Caddie Woodlawn is part of my childhood (a gift from my grandmother) and as such it is difficult to be objective. The book totally captivated me and for some reason I still cry when I read it. I just listed it on a "classic" list of children's books. When questioning facts and attitudes, remember, this story is for the most part biographical.

Mr. Woodlawn is not swept away by his neighbors' fears of the Indians and he counters Mrs. Woodlawn's apprehensions as well. Caddie reflects her father's attitude. I know that we flinch at the word "savage", but that was a term at the time and Caddie is just a little girl. While it may look condescending on her part (or Brink's), the act of spending ALL of her silver dollar on the "half-breed" boys portrays a young girl with a good heart and a sense of justice doing what is in her power to try to make these boys feel better for awhile after the loss of their mother. Their unkempt look is obviously the result of their being left with their uncouth father. The Indian mother is portrayed with deep sympathy and dignity. Even Mrs. Woodlawn says with spirit that if "your father had married an Indian" he would never have sent her away.

Don't girls have to come to terms with their tomboyish ways? I did and I don't regret it. My fahter always made me feel that I could do anything but I also wanted to learn to cook. Doesn't someone have to cook and clean? Is it all right to hire some OTHER woman to do our housework? Also, in the story the boys learn to quilt when Caddie does. My great grandfather, a farmer, made furniture, pottery, AND wove coverlets in the winter.
He could tat too. The point is that no work is demeaning.

Anonymous said...

i just recently was given a copy of caddie woodlawn and i loved it.