Monday, June 22, 2009

William O. Steele's THE BUFFALO KNIFE

A reader wrote to ask about William O. Steele's The Buffalo Knife. I have not read the book and prior to her letter, did not know anything about it. I've spent some time looking into it, though, and am sharing my thoughts here.

The book was first published in the 1952. In 1990 it was reissued with an introduction by Jean Fritz. It is an "Odyssey/Harcourt Young Classic." Another one (Flaming Arrows) with that designation was published later (in 1957). In Flaming Arrows, the protagonist and his family, according to the "Product Description" on Amazon, have to take "refuge from vicious Chickamauga raiding parties." Judy Crowder's review in the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database (CLCD) references Fritz's note. Crowder writes:

Jean Fritz, in the 1990 forward, explains that when the author--very much a historian--wrote such words as "redskins" or "savages" he was reflecting the language and attitudes of the times, which Steel found as objectionable as modern readers might. However, more subtle mindsets of the mid-twentieth century may rattle the sensibilities of today's young reader. First, the settlers' shooting the raiders as if they were deadly pests instead of human beings is unsettling. Chad himself yearns to "shoot me an Injun," and when he does, his only reaction is that of a job well done and he is disappointed when he is not praised for it. The pioneers also act as if the forests and wild animals were only there to be exploited--again, probably true to the times, but bothersome none the less. Parents and teachers should stand ready to do some careful debriefing when their children/students read this adventure.

Contrast what she said with Frank Quinby's remarks about Fritz's note in his review of The Buffalo Knife. His review is also in the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. He wrote:

"A useful introduction by Jean Fritz includes an explanation of Steele's use of such terms as "redskins" and "savages" as being reflective of the language of the time period and as such not offensive."

The Horn Book Guide gave both books its "Superior, well above average" rating.

As I studied the entries in CLCD, I saw that the "Subject" field includes "Prejudices Fiction". That subject is not listed for either book in the Library of Congress record for either book. I'll have to look into that later. For now, I want to return to Jean Fritz's note.

According to Crowder and Quinby, her note says that Steele's book reflects language and attitudes of the time period. I wonder which time period Fritz means. Is she talking about 1782, the setting for The Buffalo Knife? Or is she talking about 1952, when the book was published?

And of course, who is Fritz talking about? Who used that language? And, who had those attitudes?

In my experience, that response "that's what they thought back then" is quickly offered whenever someone questions the bias and racism embodied in that language and attitude in children's and young adult literature. My friend and colleague, Jean Mendoza, says it well when she says that surely the Indian people of that time did not use that language about each other, nor did they harbor those attitudes.

I've said that perhaps those who used that language and held such attitudes were like people on Fox News. Many of us have said that not all the white people held those attitudes either. Just some. Not all.

Several years ago, I was at the Bienecke Rare Books Library at Yale, reading some old papers housed there. I read the diary of a soldier, dated 1759-1762. In several places, he refers to Indians they fought, but he didn't say "savage/savages" and he didn't use words like "bloodthirsty." Just the words "Indian" or "Indians." I also read through a document that was a dialogue between several missionaries. Dated in 1795, it is an account of their work with "the Delawares, the 6 Nations, the Mahikands, and some smaller tribes." For the most part, the missionaries used the word Indians. There were a few uses of "heathen" but not many.

On my desk is Volume I of Documents of American Indian Diplomacy: Treaties, Agreements, and Conventions, 1775-1979 by Vine Deloria, Jr., and Raymond J. DeMallie. Chapter 1 is "Pre-Revolutionary War Treaty Making." With clear (jargon free) language, it provides context and information about treaties. In the book, Deloria and DeMallie provide context and documents (speeches and records of negotiations) that are not generally included with printings of the treaties. I pulled the book off my shelf to read some of the documents of the 1700s (time period for The Buffalo Knife), looking to see if, in these documents, I'd find the words "redskins" or "savages."

In chapter one, Deloria and DeMallie begin with the Delaware treaty of 1778.

There was to be a meeting on September 12th, but the Indian representatives of the Six Nations, Wyandots, Delawares, Shawnees, and Ottawas had not yet arrived. The American commissioners sent two people to meet with the Indians, urging them to come to the meeting. The two messengers delivered a message to the Indians. Those American commissioners addressed the Indians as "our Brothers to the Westward."

On October 6th, the Indian delegates arrived for the meeting. In a speech, they were told about the war between the colonists and England. In that speech, delivered by John Walker of Virginia, Walker starts with "Brothers you have no doubt heard of the dispute..." He went on to ask the tribes to remain neutral, and to let the colonists know if/when they learned that other nearby tribes were going to attack the colonists. He asked them, specifically, to stay home with their "Women and Children." He said women and children, not squaws and papooses.

In the next section "Revolutionary War and Articles of Confederation Treaties," Deloria and DeMallie include several speeches. In some of the speeches, the colonist delivering the speech addressed the Indians as "Bretheren, Chiefs ans Warriors of the several Nations here present." The speeches referred to each other's people as people. On July 4, 1775, Major John Connolly refers to past fighting that resulted in death on both sides as "the rash conduct of foolish people instigated by the spirit."

As I continue my research into language use of any given time period, Deloria and DeMallie's book will prove quite useful. I will also look for other documents, perhaps diaries.

What I find interesting is that in the three distinct sets of documents that I have looked at thus far, soldiers, missionaries, and diplomats do not use the sort of language that is commonly seen in historical fiction. At the very least, this is evidence that not all people used that language.

Other notes:

In 1657, John Amos Comenius, writing in Orbis Pictus, used the word Indian.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first use of "redskin" as 1699, by S. Smith. His writing is quoted in Helen Evertson Smith's Colonial Days & Ways as Gathered from Family Papers. Published in 1900, you can see it in Google Books. Here's the quote:

Ye firste Meetinge House was solid mayde to withstande ye wicked onslauts of ye Red Skins. Its Foundations was laide in ye feare of ye Lord, but its Walls was truly laide in ye feare of ye Indians, for many & grate was ye Terrors of em. I do mind me y't alle ye able-bodyed Men did work thereat, & ye olde & feeble did watch in turns to espie if any Salvages was in hiding neare & every Man keept his Musket nighe to his hande. I do not myself remember any of ye Attacks mayde by large bodeys of Indians whilst we did remayne in Weathersfield, but did ofttimes hear of em. Several Families wch did live back a ways from ye River was either Murderdt or Captivated in my Boyood & we all did live in constant feare of ye like. My Father ever declardt there were not be so much to feare iff ye Red Skins were treated wich suche mixture of Justice & Authority as they cld understand, but if he was living now he must see that wee can do naught but fight em & that right heavily.

Notice that Smith used three different terms: "Red Skins," "Salvages," and, "Indians."


As I worked on this blog post, a librarian sent me a scan of Fritz's introduction to The Buffalo Knife. Here's the last two paragraphs:

William Steele pilots a plot as deftly as he does a flatboat. And as swiftly. When you are through with these adventures, you will want to turn around and start over so you can take your time and enjoy the scenery.

Mr. Steele not only writes a good story, he writes good history that accurately reflects the feelings, the worries, the dangers of the times. And the language. When he refers to Native Americans as "redskins" or "savages," the reader understands that he finds these terms as objectionable as we do; he is simply recording what his characters would really have said. Only a skilled writer can tell a story that is true to its times and wind up with a truth that speaks to all times.

What does Fritz mean? I think she assumes that readers will notice the terms and object to them, but I wonder if that happens? Evan, who I gather is a teen reader, did not mention it in his review. None of the customer reviews on Amazon mention it. It isn't addressed in Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Children's Literature, published in 2002, or in The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling: Year 2001, or in Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum: A Guide to Catholic Home Education.

Do you teach this book? Have you read it? What do you think?