Thursday, July 03, 2008

Selective Omissions, or, What Laura Ingalls Wilder left out of LITTLE HOUSE

In 2001, I began some in-depth research on Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie. I came across an article about a speech she gave on October 16, 1937, at a book fair in a Detroit department store. Her speech was published forty years later (September, 1978) in the Saturday Evening Post. I read the speech and was astonished at what she said. Moreover, I was astonished that none of the material I'd read to that point (and since) has commented on that speech... She said:

Every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true. All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth. There were some stories I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child.

And here is an extended excerpt. I'm adding bold text to set off the portions of the speech I want you to pay particular attention to:
There was the story of the Bender family that belonged in the third volume, Little House on the Prairie. The Benders lived halfway between it and Independence, Kansas. We stopped there, on our way in to the Little House, while Pa watered the horses and brought us all a drink from the well near the door of the house. I saw Kate Bender standing in the doorway. We did not go in because we could not afford to stop at a tavern.

On his trip to Independence to sell his furs, Pa stopped again for water, but did not go in for the same reason as before.

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.

He made up a party in Independence and they followed the road south, but when they came to the Bender place there was no one there. There were signs of hurried departure and they searched the place.

The front room was divided by a calico curtain against which the dining table stood. On the curtain back of the table were stains about as high as the head of a man when seated. Behind the curtain was a trap door in the floor and beside it lay a heavy hammer.

In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.” They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.

You will agree it is not a fit story for a children’s book. But it shows there were other dangers on the frontier besides wild Indians.

Some context for why that speech is--to me--astonishing. In Little House on the Prairie, Wilder presents Indians as frightening and menacing. Through Mrs. Scott, she tells us about an Indian massacre. Three times, Wilder's characters say "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." And what about the terrifying tone at the end of Little House on the Prairie, when Pa stays up all night and the entire family listens to Indians "howling" for several nights in a row?

According to Wilder, it is "fit" for children to read about "wild Indians" but it is not "fit" for them to read about serial killers who are white, nor is it "fit" for children to read that Pa killed someone in order to protect his family from harm.

Wilder's speech was reprinted in 1988 in A Little House Sampler, edited by William T. Anderson. A Little House Sampler is cited in eleven other books (according to Amazon), and yet, nobody commented on the Bender's, or Wilder's decision not to include that story.

Think about that omission and what it means. I invite your comments, and please take a minute to read about racism in the Little House books (links below).

Update, July 5, 2008

A librarian in Kansas wrote to point me to info on the Benders, who are quite well known as serial killers. She writes:
The Bloody Benders, as they were called, represent one of Kansas' most enduring mysteries. They appeared to be a family of well-organized killers who robbed and killed unsuspecting travelers who ventured into their home/inn for a meal and whose bodies dropped through a trap door in the floor under the chair in which they were seated. Here is further information from our state historical society: Bender Knife.

There is a museum in Cherryvale, KS, which has items from the Bender home and a wreath of human hair from their victims, as well as a roadside marker near Labette, KS: The Bloody Benders.

And, another person has written, pointing me to a graphic novel called A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Saga of the Bloody Benders.

For further reading:
Posts about racism in Little House on the Prairie series

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Red Wire Magazine

Another must-get I learned about as a result of my visit to the University of Arizona last week is Red Wire Magazine. Here's info from their "About Us" page:

Redwire Native Youth Media Society is a media and arts organization dedicated to Native youth expression.

Redwire Magazine published its first issue in April 1997 with the support of the Native Youth Movement (a grassroots Native youth group) and the Environmental Youth Alliance. Today Redwire distributes 11,000 copies across Canada, four times a year. Redwire is the first-ever Native youth run magazine in Canada, and is committed to operating with Native youth staff, writers, artists and publishers.

Redwire's mandate is to provide Native youth with an uncensored forum for discussion, in order to help youth find their own voice. Redwire is by, for and about Native youth; all content, editorial decisions and associated media projects are initiated and led by youth, inspiring creativity, motivation and action.

A subscription is $20/year for four issues. Each issue includes articles, art, poetry, news, letters, and reviews. The June 2007 issue has a piece called "Canadian Colonialism: The Three Bears and the Locks" by David Fullerton-Owl, of the Sagamok Anishinawbek First Nation. Here's the opening paragraphs:

The Three Bears lived in the woods, as had their ancestors from time immemorial. There was a Mama bear, a Papa bear and a wee little baby bear. Since it was a beautiful sunny morning, the bear family decided to fish and pick some berries for an afternoon picnic. Fishing and berry picking, a traditional means of survival, required the bears to travel some distance. It so happened that the bears were up for a nice long walk.

Papa bear lifted wee little baby bear on his shoulders, but Mama bear wanted baby bear to learn self-reliance; wee little baby bear crawled down and off they went.

The woods were filled with all types of animals. Something was not right, though, and the raven decided to fly high above the thick trees to see for herself. The raven quickly observed that intruders had entered the forest. A burly man carried a large suitcase in one hand, with a sharp axe in the other. Behind him walked a petite woman and a little girl with gold hair. These people were sent on a mission, known to others as the Locks family.

The note preceding the story says "The fictional account below is a commentary on the present Caledonia land dispute and the age old tale of Goldilocks, her encroachment on foreign territory, and the overarching theme of intruders invading traditional territory. "

The Caledonia land dispute is known in Native circles, but is the sort of thing that doesn't get much coverage in mainstream press. And, when it does, there's bias against the Native people involved. It is, in short, a struggle for land.

Like Red Ink, Red Wire provides you with Native voices. And like Red Ink, I think Red Wire ought to be on your library shelves.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ofelia Zepeda's OCEAN POWER

While I was in Tucson last week for the American Indian Language Development Institute, I listened to Ofelia Zepeda read some of her poems. She was a guest speaker in Angie Hoffman's class on children's literature. Dr. Zepeda read from her book, Ocean Power.

She read "Pulling Down the Clouds" and at this line...

With dreams of distant noise disturbing his sleep,
the smell of dirt, wet, for the first time in what seems like months

... my thoughts turned to being home, at Nambe, smelling the dirt when it rains. It is a bit hard to explain, and no doubt many of you will find it odd, but... The smell and the taste are one and the same. That smell made (and makes) me want to eat that wet dirt. It's a smell like none anywhere else. It's not like a food smell, or a plant smell, or an animal smell. It's unique. Some of our Puebloan homes have mud plaster on interior walls. Splash a little water on that mud plaster, and you get that smell. My mom and dad like to tell of how, when we'd visit my sa?yaa (grandmother in Tewa), after we'd leave, she would find three wet circles in one of her rooms, where me and my two sisters would have had a go at the walls, licking them like lollipops.

Zepeda's book has many poems in it that high school and college teachers can use in the classroom. Here's one of the poems. (Note: The small width on Blogger's program means line breaks don't fall quite right. I know that is a problem. Line breaks matter in poems. To make sure they fall correctly, I'm using a smaller font for the poem. I apologize for its size.)

Deer Dance Exhibition

Question: Can you tell us what he is wearing?
Well the hooves represent the deer's hooves.
the red scarf represents the flowers from which he ate.
the shawl is for the skin.
The cocoons make the sound of the deer walking on leaves and grass.
Question: What is that he is beating on?
It's a gourd drum. The drum represents the heartbeat of the deer.
When the drum beats, it brings the deer to life.
We believe the water the drum sits in is holy. It is life.
Go ahead, touch it.
Bless yourself with it.
It is holy. You are safe now.
Question: How does the boy become a dancer?
He just knows. His mother said he had dreams when he was just a little boy.
You know how that happens. He just had it in him.
Then he started working with older men who taught him how to dance.
He has made many sacrifices for his dancing even for just a young boy.
The people concur, "Yes, you can see it in his face."
Question: What do they do with the money we throw them?
Oh, they just split it among the singers and dancer.
They will probably take the boy to McDonald's for a burger and fries.
Then men will probably have a cold one.
It's hot today, you know.

Ofelia Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O'odham tribe in Arizona. As we sat together, we talked about tribal names. The Tohono O'odham people are among the first, if not the first, to successfully change what they are known as. They were formerly known as Papago.

Zepeda is a professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. She wrote the first grammar of the Tohono O'odham language, A Papago Grammar. In 1999, she won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. In Ocean Power, many of the poems have both, English and Tohono O'odham in them. Ocean Power is available from Oyate.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Terrific essays about Meyer's character "Jacob" in TWILIGHT

A post to YALSA about people of color in fantasy led me to a livejournal post about Jacob, the Quileute character in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga.

Saskaia (the author of the essay) is finished with the first three books (I'm partway thru the second one, having set it aside to read and work on Landman's Apache: Girl Warrior. By the way, it would be so cool if the powers-that-be over at Candlewick would say "STOP THE PRESSES!" and cancel the release of Landman's book in the U.S.).

In this 'slice' of a larger essay, saskaia (the author doesn't capitalize the first s) considers the plausibility of Jacob. Here's an excerpt:

While Jacob is surely overwhelmed with being a teen werewolf attending the tribal high school while patrolling Quileute land in all of his free time, I can scarcely believe that he and the other Quileute characters never attend powwows or social dances - not one is ever mentioned. It's disconcerting to anyone familiar with Native culture in the United States, especially reservation culture where powwows and social dances still serve as the major arena for socialization.

Saskaia has an engaging style of writing. I enjoyed reading her critique and am with her as she says

I am all for deviation for the typical character archetype but this is where I am thrown from the story, out the window and into my street. I can buy that Jacob thinks himself in love with Bella, but where are Jacob's experiences so he can freely choose Bella? Where are the other Native women?

Saskaia has a link in her essay that I'm placing here, too: Stephenie Meyer's use of Quileute Characters. This is her first post about the saga, wherein she talks about herself (she is Native) and says

While Jacob was written to be mostly age-appropriate, I think she did fall into uber-sexy warrior territory after his first phasing as a werewolf...

Do take a few minutes to read saskaia's critiques. They are terrific!

[Update, 12:54 CST, June 30, 2008---Saskaia's got quite a following! My sitemeter stats show lot of hits from livejournal. Welcome to my site!]

If you want to read more on the ways that the Quileute's are portrayed in the series, look over to the right side of this page. Scroll up or down till you see the section labeled TWILIGHT SAGA. There you'll see several links to posts about the series.