Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Brits and Americans, Imagining Indians

This morning, I read an article in the Telegraph about the "Latitude Festival," an annual music festival that takes place in Suffolk, England. The first one was in 2006. The article in the Telegraph isn't about the music. Instead, Neil McCormick describes the people and setting. Here's what caught my eye:

People enter into the spirit with colourful costumes: there were parties of American Indians, Smurfs and an engaging posse of pensionable old dears dressed as fairies. The audience is, it has to be said, overwhelmingly white and middle-class (and probably predominantly middle-aged).

Indians, Smurfs, and fairies.

Reading those words reminded me of an email I received on December 30, 2007 in response to critiques I posted about one of Jan Brett's books. In her email, the author wrote:

Why is there always someone who wants to rain on someone else's parade? Why can't children just enjoy a good read? I am sure you don't believe in Santa, the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny because they are incorrect in guiding young children's beliefs.

For those that want to study the American Indian ways and beliefs, good for them. For now I will read and enjoy books, just because.

It struck me that she would cast American Indians in that particular framework---of things-not-real. She is a librarian in a public school in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Santa. The Tooth Fairy. The Easter Bunny.
Indians, Smurfs, and fairies.

Here and in the UK. Evidence of the work that needs doing, and I note with no small amount of concern, the librarians resistance to that work.

To see what prompted the librarian's email, read Theresa Seidel's "An Open Letter to Jan Brett, published here on December 19, 2007. And read a related article "Jan Brett and Sherman Alexie" posted here on December 31, 2007.


Unknown said...

Just back from England...so, sadly, not surprised. Every story had to begin with a story from an older friend: "If you visited me, I would offer you a chair and share my food--but would not expect you to take the chair and empty the frig when you left!" Saw too many cedar flutes being carried about by Anglo-Saxons---and djimbe drums played by pale-skinned "pagans"....Ah, the work that needs doing...

Anonymous said...

"Evidence of the work that needs doing, and I note with no small amount of concern, the librarians resistance to that work."

It is NOT a librarian's job to censor books. I applaud the job you do educating the public, but public libraries are NOT sanctuaries of truth and fact. We pride ourselves on diverse collections representing many different points of view. We are doing a different job than you are, and that is ok. Keep up the good work, but don't expect public libraries to become repositories of only PC items.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Anonymous,

The librarian who wrote to me works at a school, not in a public library. I know about the ALA Bill of Rights.

My remark about resistance has more to do with that librarian's attitude than a discussion of censorship or selection.

She seems very close-minded to learning about American Indians, and to considering a viewpoint that counters her own.

Saints and Spinners said...

I keep meaning to send you this article I read in the May/June 2009 Utne Reader: Der Indianer: Why do 40,000 Germans spend their weekends dressed as Native Americans?

Mai said...

In response to that Utne article posted by Saints and Spinners - in the current (July-August 2009)issue there is an interesting (especially in light of what Debbie is doing) letter to the editor (bold is mine):

"I grew up in Romania, and when I was 10 years old Karl May's novels about Winnetou and Old Shatterhand were the bomb. There were also some spin-offs that I remember (plus cartoons galore). I now live in Oconee County, South Carolina. While my childhood memories still uphold these heroes, my adoptive country has shown me that everything I knew about Native Americans since childhood was wrong, the product of a writer's imaginative mind. Florin D. Lung Seneca, South Carolina.

Nicole said...

Regarding the quote Carys mentioned -- that reminded me of one time when a Romanian visited us when I was a kid. I can't remember the whole incident, but the gentleman asked my dad if they could go see Indians; the assumption was that they would go to a reservation, perhaps, and see people as they would have lived 100+ years ago, except he didn't realize that they don't live that way anymore, in the same way that my family no longer herds sheep and practices transhumance.

The man was also very surprised that Indians weren't everywhere (or, I suppose, visibly evident everywhere).

At the time, I attributed it to many people just not having a good knowledge of the US before coming here (any more than most Americans would of Romania); we'd also had visitors who had no concept of the large distances in the US, so they thought they could go visit their friends in Seattle (we were in Massachusetts) by bus, not realizing that it would take days.

Carole McDonnell said...

Definitely a case of "everything but the burden" mixed with romanticization of the "lost" and the noble savage trope. I can understand why humans want to get all romantic about nostalgia but the love of that romantic totally false past rarely connected to any passion for the state of the actual people in the actual present. Their love of the supposed "beauty of the romanticized pagan past" can't allow the real and the true to intrude. Perhaps they dismiss reality because it's too bothersome and can't really be played with as they frolic along trying to find their lost mythic inner child. Great post. -C