Tuesday, April 07, 2009

"The Big Indian" in La Crosse, Wisconsin


As you may know, I was in La Crosse last week. I did a presentation on American Indians and children's literature in Murphy Library at U Wisconsin La Crosse. It was a terrific gathering and I met a lot of wonderful people.

A reporter from the local paper was there to do an interview. Her article ran on Saturday in the Tribune. It is titled "Activist eyes cultural accuracy in kid's books." Here's the first two paragraphs:

The classic children’s book “Little House on the Prairie” portrays American Indians as primitive and less than human, said an expert in American Indian studies.

Yet the book is set in a time when the U.S. government had about 800 treaties with American Indian tribes, said Debbie Reese, assistant professor of American Indian studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These were men protecting their families, not bloodthirsty Indians,” she said.


Trib readers offered comments to the article. "Sad Sally" said:

I can hardly take it anymore. DON'T WE HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO WORRY ABOUT????? MY GOD, WE ARE AT WAR, OUR ECONOMY IS IN SHAMBLES, OUR PRESIDENT IS OVER SEAS CALLING US ARROGANT, THOUSANDS OF BABIES ARE BEING ABORTED AS WE SPEAK, GAYS CAN MARRY IN IOWA, and we are worried about how Laura Ingalls perceived the Indians? This is downright stupid MY GOD!! 

And "wiseup" said:

Too many times 'activist' means complainer. Native's routinely killed other tribes and forced them off their own lands before the white man came here. Few were taught this tragic history. If you go back far enough, EVERY race has committed genocide, mass murder, etc against their fellow man! No one with a brain sees any side as ALL GOOD or ALL BAD. You can't change what happened in the past! Get over it and look to future!


I doubt that either Sad Sally or wiseup were at the talk I gave. Perhaps "activist" cued them to respond as they did. I do, in fact, consider myself an activist scholar, which is a way of saying that I use the knowledge I gain during my research by sharing it with others, and I encourage them to share it with others, too. I suggest they be active with that knowledge by asking bookstores to order copies of books that do not stereotype American Indians.

Most of the comments to the article are like Sad Sally's remarks. Comments by Jaxx are different:

I am currently reading "Lies My Teacher Told Me" by James W. Loewen, which I highly recommend for people. Not only do public schools not teach about the genocide that Native Americans have experienced, but they also make Christopher Columbus into a hero!

Negative comments are the norm, but worth noting because they tell us what think. They tell us what the teachers who attended my talk are up against...

I read those negative comments and think about "The Big Indian" statue in La Crosse at Riverside Park. Formally known as "Hiawatha," the statue is controversial. Minnesota Public Radio did a piece on it in 2000. Called "A Dilemma in La Crosse" it includes voices of those who want to keep it, and voices of those who want it removed. The photograph above is "The Big Indian." It's a tourist draw for the city. The Marriott, for example, lists it under "Recreation Information" on their webpage. They list it as "The Big Indian."

In the article, an art history professor who studies roadside statues says that it should stay in place because statues like it serve as reminders of how far the country has come. She can view it that way, but reading the article, it is clear that the public does not see it as she does. By them, it is revered and they see nothing offensive about it. The art history professor also says that it is an important marker for American history. I think it is evidence of America's arrogance, power, and ignorance. It makes it possible for people to comment, as they did, to the article about my talk.

Who, in fact, was Hiawatha? Is, for example, Hiawatha by Susan Jeffers an accurate portrayal of the person who was Hiawatha? Or are they about Longfellow's fictive Hiawatha?

4 comments:

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

I am appalled, but not surprised at these comments. When I was teaching on the Quallah Boundary in NC, I met a 6th grade teacher who, without knowing more than my name and position, launched into a spiel about how the Cherokee use the Trail of Tears as an excuse and how they need to get over it and 'move on'.
Lots of white folks hate being reminded of the brutal history of this country. I don't think many of them advocate 'getting over' 9/11 and 'moving on'.

Elizabeth said...

We have a Big Indian here in Maine. Google it at Big Indian Freeport.
Teachers who, with me, are battling the symbolism are - well - battling. It is in this state a large part economics and eco-history. I remember the piece as a marker for my own "crossing of the border." Yes, I do think that making the statue part of a learning experience - museum, bus tour, on-line tour - is important. Let these statues stand, where they are - but make them teach-able.

jpm said...

If only those Big Indian "statues" brought about teachable moments on a daily basis. And who's there to do the teaching, as long as those things stand with the blessing of local officials and others who are either sentimental about them or determined to "keep Indians in their place"?? A handful of teachers and activists -- who seem to be always outnumbered and loudly dismissed by the proponents of the status quo.... and who tend to not be the ones hired by bus tour companies and so on. What would a tour-guide's spiel about one of those statues actually include, I wonder?

In fact, for some people those grotesque enormous attention-commanding misrepresentations are a kind of inside joke, a sly reference to the often pejorative "BFI", or Big **effing** Indian sometimes mentioned by white males who live near Indian communities, when they are telling self-aggrandizing tales to what they assume is a receptive audience.
I first learned about the use of the term "BFI" from a niece who is indigenous and who has lived in Maine all her life; she was recounting experiences she and her brothers had in school and community. Later, I heard a bunch of white guys laughing about a Big Indian story in Tulsa.... Native kids need genuine support in the form of realistic, positive, non-stereotypical images, and those huge phony Big Indian "statues" do NOTHING to help. In fact, they are worse than useless. Nor do those things help non-Native kids to learn and grow. There is almost never a teacher, an activist tour guide, or other informed adult around when kids first encounter those images. And unlike Edgar Heap of Birds' oft-vandalized installation which Debbie mentions, the giant "Indian" statues were never intended to make anyone think outside the dominant-culture box.

And then! Debbie's blog post about the gigantic stereotype in LaCrosse has been immediately followed by news that an installation by Edgar Heap of Birds on the UIUC campus has been vandalized. The installation is meant to inform.... and it gets vandalized.

Chris Rencontre said...

I really disliked some of the comments readers submitted about your talk in LaCrosse, but they are certainly typical of what I would expect.

I appreciated the post that noted that Americans are not in any hurry to get over 911... this is true and "not getting over 911" currently serves the economic and political needs of our current power structure... anything that does not support the needs of the current power structure is deemed unimportant and frivolous.