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
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
“Do you think the Indians around here would ever get mad and massacre folks like they did up north?” wondered
“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."