Friday, December 28, 2007

Christians and Indians: Comenius and Alexie

Over on the email discussion list for YALSA-BK (an ALA listserv for people who work with young adult literature), there is a discussion going on about Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Specifically, the discussion is about Alexie's inclusion of masturbation. I gather that librarians in Christian-based schools are considering not ordering the book. Most of the discussion suggests that the librarians in those schools should let kids make their own decisions. Masturbation is a very real part of teen life.

I don't think it is a Christian versus American Indian situation. I do think we're past that.

There was a time, though, way back when (and maybe not so way-back), Christians called us pagans and heathens with no morals... Take, for example, Orbis Pictus.

Back in 1657, John Amos Comenius wrote Orbis Pictus, an encyclopedic picture book for children that is now commonly identified as the first picture book for children. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) established a nonfiction book award, and named it the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children.

Comenius was, according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, a Czech educational reformer, a Protestant minister.

In his book, Comenius includes a section about religion. Therein he says

The Indians, 10. even at this day, worship the Devil, 11.

The numeral 10 refers to the illustration, shown here, that accompanies this section. It corresponds to a figure meant to be an Indian. Likewise, the numeral 11 corresponds to a figure meant to be the Devil.

The illustration of the Gentiles is in two parts. The larger of the two is an indoor setting. It looks like a gallery of statues, each one in its own arched enclosure. The smaller illustration is set outside. I draw your eye to the figures on the right side of the smaller illustration. To the building with a shingled, pitched roof, in front of which sits the devil. The Indian is on his knees in front of the devil. The devil's right arm is raised over the Indians head, and its left arm is touching the Indians shoulder.

Here, in Comenius's words is the text that begins on page 185 of the book published in 1887 (viewed at Amazon using the "search inside" option):

Hence are divers Religions
whereof IV. are reckoned
yet as the chief.


The Gentiles feigned
to themselves near upon
XIIM. Deities.

The chief of them were

Jupiter, 1. President, and
petty-God of Heaven;

Neptune, 2. of the Sea;

Pluto, 3. of Hell;

Mars, 4. of War;

Apollo, 5. of Arts;

Mercury, 6. of Thieves,
and Eloquence;

Vulcan, (Mulciber)
of Fire and Smiths;

Aeolus, of Winds;

and the most obscene of
all the rest, Priapus.

They had also
Womanly Deities:
such as were Venus, 7.
the Goddess of Loves,
and Pleasures, with
her little son Cupid, 8.

(Pallas), with
the nine Muses of Arts;

Juno, of Riches and Wed-
dings; Vesta, of Chastity;

Ceres, of Corn;

Diana, of Hunting,
and Fortune;

and besides these Morbona,
and Febris her self.

The Egyptians,
instead of God
worshipped all sorts
of Beasts and Plants,
and whatsoever they saw
first in the morning.

The Philistines offered
to Moloch, 9. their Children
to be burnt alive,

The Indians, 10. even to
this day, worship the
Devil, 11.

I said, above in parens, "maybe not so way-back" because there are still plenty of Christian missionaries out there, moving amongst Native people on the reservations, trying to get them to church.

When I was in first grade, I think, I went to catechism, memorized prayers, and made my "First Holy Communion." Course, in the summer, we'd all pile into the very cool VW bug and bus driven by the Baptist folks who took us to summer day camp. I don't recall it being called Bible School, but that is what it was. I loved it. I don't recall learning prayers or teachings from the Bible. What I loved was the crafts we did. Those plaster of paris items that we'd paint... Were they of Jesus? Mary? I don't recall. It was the activity itself that I remember. I had a good time. In contrast, I hated catechism. I really liked the watch I got as a present when I did the "First Holy Communion." It was a Cinderella watch, sold on a ceramic Cinderella figurine. That figurine, and those plaster casts.... I can almost feel their cool smooth surfaces. But am I a Christian? No.

This post is a bit meandering... What is swimming through my thoughts are Christian perceptions of what is good, what is right. In Alexie's book, fear of sex. In Comenius and in my childhood, a perceived need to Christianize us, to stop our ways of worship.

As someone who studies and writes about images of Indians in children's books, Comenius is an important work to note and think about. If his book is the first book for children, then his image of an Indian is the first non-Native produced image of an Indian in a book for children. As such it stands as a book-end of sorts that I will be thinking of as I continue my research.

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