Monday, January 07, 2008

Observations: Natives in the News and the Role of Children's Books

Each morning I get a "google alert" email comprised of links to news stories published in the preceding 24 hours on the phrase "Native Americans" or "American Indians."

This morning, there was a link to an article in the Telegraph, whose tag is "Britain's No. 1 quality newspaper website." The article is called "And the protester is..." It is about moments of protest at the Oscars. The part of the article that google snagged for me is this:


When presenters Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann declared Marlon Brando best actor for The Godfather, a young woman dressed as a native American squaw appeared on the podium.

I am appalled that whomever wrote the article used the word "squaw." Its use in the article demonstrates the strength by which Brits are gripped by outdated and biased imagery of American Indians. It was used in a matter-of-fact way, just as it was used in a lot of older classic works of children's historical fiction published here in the United States.

In the present day, I think that more and more Americans know it is a derogatory term and choose to use it only when seeking to provoke. I hasten to add that there are still people who think it an appropriate word. See, for example, my post here in which a non-Native woman asked a Native woman what they should call Native women if not squaws. In that post, I made the argument that seeing the word "squaw" in children's books may give it credibility it doesn't deserve.

I read the Telegraph piece with another news story in my mind. In the past few days, the Washington Post has run a couple of articles that seek to paint Rick West, former director of the National Museum of the American Indian, in dark tones. The paper claims that his travel to places like Europe and New Zealand was uncalled for. It suggested he was not tending to business here, but living it up in expensive hotels.

I view the Post's critique as ridiculous. One of our major problems is that people here and around the world think we no longer exist. And what they think they know about us is pretty awful. I was in Greece two years ago, went into a shop and saw stereotypical ceramic Indians-in-headdresses adorning the walls. In France, I was stunned when a Columbian performance troupe set up outside the train station in Venice, and proceeded to entertain the crowd with stereotypical American Indian dance and music. I watched them put on face paint, fringed and beaded buckskin, and large feathered headdresses, and I watched the crowd snap pictures and applaud enthusiastically.

Those observations from my trip, the Telegraph story, the "Chief Hawah" book Marion Boyars published recently, and my experience with the cab driver in NYC in November 07 are evidence that Rick West's lectures and meetings abroad are vitally important.

People around the world are mis-educated about American Indians. The work of those who seek to change that is two-fold and must take place in many venues. One, we must point out the stereotypical and biased representations when we see them. Two, we must point TO books and resources that provide accurate information about American Indians.

Children's books play a role in that mis-education. Instead of using those classic, award-winning books of historical fiction as literature, would we do a better job of educating American children if we'd use those books to talk about writing and perspective instead? (I'm speaking here, to international audiences as well... Books published here and read abroad, too.)


The Local Crank said...

For more on the Brits' utterly bizarre racist understanding of "Red Indians," see this truly appalling ad for Virgin Trains that ran on British television, and was evidently vetted by the British government.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in reading something current on the Native American struggle or anything modern really. It's seems all books regarding Native Americans involves hunting buffolo and fighting the Calvary. The only thing semi- current that I have read is In The Spirit of Crazy Horse and Prison Writings both goods books about Leonard Peltier, but I would like to read more if you have any reccomendations.

Anonymous said...

Please disregard my previous comment.After scrolling through your blog I realized that your whole blog is pretty much dedicated to recomendations of modern books.Sorry!