Monday, March 31, 2008

On LITTLE HOUSE: "Oh, mom, you would hate it," she replied: "they're wild savages."

At the Native American Literature Symposium last week, I did a presentation on my blog and research. A few moments ago, I received this letter from Vanessa Diana. She was at the conference, too. (Were you sitting beside me at Hershman's session, Diana?) We talked a few times while there, including as we sat in the lobby, the last night, when the fire alarm went off and those of us on the 5th floor had to evacuate that floor for a short while! Hershman shared his chair with me. He and Vanessa were cheery. (I was quite the grump, having been sound asleep when the alarm went off.) Here's Vanessa's letter (and a heartfelt thanks to Vanessa for sending it):

Dear Debbie,

Thank you for your informative presentation last week at the Native American Literature Symposium. I had thought I was pretty aware of the negative portrayals of Native Americans in children's literature, had had long talks with my children about why Peter Pan ("what makes the red man red?"), Curious George and others were harmful representations, but I confess to having never read Little House on the Prairie. Like many American kids in the 70s, I grew up with the beloved TV version, though. So I gave my 9-year-old daughter Amaya a copy without thinking twice.

Well, after your presentation I called home to talk with Amaya, who is a voracious reader. "How would you describe the portrayal of Native Americans in Little House?" I asked her. "Oh, mom, you would hate it," she replied: "they're wild savages." Then she thought for a moment and added, "Actually most of the books about pioneer days give the same portrayal, unless they're written from the Indians' perspective." [Yes, she's only 9!] How scary that my fourth grader already sees this pattern clearly. She also commented that when children at her mostly white elementary school play at recess, they often do the war whoop. I should add that the curriculum at my children's school does include factual history about Columbus (not just the Columbus-as-hero model) and tribal diversity, and both of my children's teachers have made an effort to include diverse perspectives in their reading curricula. But as you mentioned in your presentation, these educational efforts don't seem to translate on the playground.

As you might guess, I came home from NALS with some new books for my kids, including Erdrich's The Birchbark House for Amaya! And I'm looking forward to sharing your blog with teachers and librarians in my community. Thank you again for your work.

Vanessa Diana
Westfield State College
Westfield, MA


The Bear Maiden said...

LOL on the 9YO. My Sun is 9 and I've learned to trust his observations. Sometimes he clearly sees things that I don't. I think the problem is that children DO see and understand... it's the adults who pass on our learned ways. And obliterate the clarity.

Jen said...

Maybe I'm naive, but I don't see a big problem with the portrayal of Native Americans in the Little House books. Before you zap me, here's what my line of thought is.

Is it necessarily the most accurate portrayal in even a general sense for that time period? No, of course it isn't. However, it is an honest portrayal from the eyes of a child growing up in that time period. That doesn't make it any more a negative portrayal than stories from 1940s and 50s that use the "n" word in an honest and accurate portrayal of the stereotypes prevalent at that time. Had Mrs. Wilder written the story and left those biases/perspectives out, it wouldn't have been an honest story. It would be like "cleaning up" history so that it doesn't offend. And that's not being responsible as an author.

So, you take the time to discuss this with the kids reading the books. You can even work in discussions of literary perspectives.

Jeannine DesRoches said...

obviously the mom should have read the book. thats ONE side to the view portrayed in the booKs, but lauras father is obviously much less biased. his counter perspective figures significantly throughout the book "little house on the prairie", he says they if they hatd whites it was because they were being forced out of their own territories, and that they were peaceful if not threatened.

Jeannine said...

wow but the last two chapters are horrific! i recant bc purporting to be even minded while also calling for an end to Resistance is worse!

Jean Mendoza said...

Thank you, Jeannine, for revisiting this post about a book that continues to influence non-Native schoolchildren's perceptions of Native people. One of the most important questions we as educators and parents can ask ourselves about Little House on the Prairie is, "What might a Native child feel, reading or hearing this book?"

Non-Native adults often feel confident that they can defuse any misunderstandings that arise during the sharing of this book through discussions with a "that was then, this is now, [white] people really felt that way but they don't feel that way any more" focus. That's unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First: it assumes that there are no Native kids in the group with whom the book is being shared. In the book and in that subsequent discussion, they see/hear biased representations of their people with no counter-representations. Pa's almost grudging respect coupled with gratitude for Removal does not really count as an insider perspective on Native experience. It's the scene with the two Native men coming into the cabin that most readers remember, along with the "only good Indian" sentiments expressed by other characters, that tend to stick in the minds of children.

Second, anyone who lives in or near a Native community knows that the kind of anti-Native sentiment expressed in LHOP is alive and well in the general population. It is not a thing of the past, and saying that it is miseducates non-Native children, and is immediately recognizable as a lie by Native kids who may have experienced such prejudice first-hand.

Our experience has been that most teachers need a lot more grounding in Native history and culture (and, perhaps, in the psychology of bigotry) than they are likely to have received, if they are going to lead discussions with kids with the intent of deconstructing myths about Native people as expressed in books like LHOP.

And Jeannine, I concur about those last two chapters. Yes, the mom in Debbie's original post "should have" read the book before giving it to her child, but one of the interesting phenomena we've found is that many non-Native people who read LHOP in their own childhoods do not remember the bias and misrepresentations and are shocked upon revisiting it when they see what it actually says.