Friday, February 27, 2009

Not Recommended: "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry

Note from Debbie on Dec 17, 2020: A reader wrote to let us know that "The Ransom of Red Chief" also includes the N word and that I did not note it in my review back in 2007. I am grateful to AICL readers who write to tell me when I miss something. Thank you for taking time to let me know. 


One of the questions I've received a few times is about O. Henry's short story, The Ransom of Red Chief. (Update on July 17, 2019: The story was first published in 1907 in The Saturday Evening Post. The illustration below is from that issue.)

Illustration from The Saturday Evening Post, July 6, 1907

In the story a ten year old boy named Johnny is kidnapped. His kidnappers think his father will pay $2000 to get him back. Turns out, though, that the boy is a handful. Of course, his dad knows this, and everyone else in town does, too. He's such a troublemaker that the neighbors are glad he's gone. His dad, knowing the kidnappers are discovering they've got more than they bargained for, says he'll take the boy back if the kidnappers will pay him to do so. The kidnappers, instead of gaining $2000, lose $250.

The story has "Red Chief" in the title because that's what Johnny calls himself once settled in the cave where the kidnappers hole up. He's put feathers in his hair, holds a stick and calls out to one of the kidnappers:
"'Ha! cursed paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of Red Chief, the terror of the plains?'"
Johnny is playing Indian. He utters war whoops, and tries to scalp one of his captors. He's having a great time and doesn't want to go home.

I've been looking around the internet this morning to see how the story is used. I've found it used to discuss acquisitions strategies in business journals. I've also found it being used in a study of anxiety in youths. In that study, the participants are asked to read it aloud. No further details are included as to why the researchers chose that book over something else.

Mostly, though, it is used in high schools to teach about irony, and that crime doesn't pay. Looking over the lesson plans, I find things like "Red Chief is a holy terror at the beginning of the story, and he is still a terror at the end."

This reminds me of that phrase "stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians" that some parents say when their kids are, from the parents viewpoint, out of control.

If you recall reading The Ransom of Red Chief in school, please share with us the way it was used in your school. If you're a teacher using it, or if you know of it being used somewhere, I'd like to hear about that, too.

Has anyone seen it used to teach about stereotypes?

What the story does is affirm stereotypes of American Indians as feathered creatures, wild, out of control, and terrorizing whites ("paleface", to use the word Johnny used). That he plays Indian adds another dimension to the problems with the depictions of Indians. Feathers give him further license to act out.

That, of course, isn't who we are as Native people. Not now, and not in the past either. Conflicts of the past that portray Native people as savage fail to place that past in context. Native people who fought white soldiers and settlers did so to protect their families, homes, and homelands.

If you're a teacher who uses this story, consider the lessons you teach if you do not address the stereotyping in the story. Consider its effects on all the children in your classroom. Are any of them Native? Do they become the butt of jokes in the classroom? Are they teased? Does anyone call them "Red Chief"?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Books by Walter D. Edmonds

Two nights ago I gave a lecture at Westfield State College. Among the books I discussed is The Matchlock Gun, by Walter D. Edmonds. Doris Seale's review of the book is at the Oyate site. I urge you to click on over there to read it. She describes the book, and notes, too, that it gained new life when it was chosen for the "We the People" bookshelf project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities/American Library Association.

I'm thinking about the book today because last night I watched a film with my daughter (a sophomore in college). She's taking a film class. Screenings for this week include Drums Along the Mohawk. (I'm in New Haven, doing research in the Bienecke, and spending time with Liz, too.) As we drove to my hotel last night, she asked if I wanted to watch a film with her. She told me the title and started reading the accompanying info on the movie box. It reads "Based on the best-selling novel by Walter D. Edmonds..."

So I did spend the late evening last night watching Drums Along the Mohawk. It's came out in 1939. Very early in the film, Peter Fonda takes his bride, Lana, to his homestead. It's a stormy night, there's a lot of flies, and she's pretty unhappy. They go inside his cabin, he lights a fire, and then leaves to tend to the horse and wagon outside. While he's gone, an Indian comes into the cabin.

Lana turns away from the fireplace, sees, him, and starts screaming and races to the farthest corner. The Indian has been walking toward her, holding his gun, a blank expression on his face. Hubby comes in and tries to shake some sense into her, eventually slapping her, which stops her hysterics. He tells her that the Indian, "Blue Back" is helpful, friendly, a Christian. Blue Back calls out "Hallelujah" more than once during the film. Helpful and friendly, he warns the colonists when Indians are "on the warpath."

Doing some research on the book, I see it on a lot of book lists, especially for accelerated readers. I wonder how the book is used? With older children, books with biased presentations of Native people can be used to teach about perspective, but I wonder if its being used that way...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My visit to Westfield State College, MA

I spent yesterday at Westfield State College in Westfield, Massachusetts. I gave a lecture, followed by an hour or so of questions. I didn't get to answer all the questions (sorry!), and, there may be others that weren't asked, or, that came to mind later, or this morning.

If you have a comment or question, please send me an email to debreese at illinois dot edu. (I trust you know how to turn that spelled-out email address into an actual one.) Or, use the comment option below... Click on comment, a dialog box will open, type your comment/question, then the wavy letters that prove you're a person not a computer that's sending spam, and, hit submit.

I do appreciate feedback. If you disagree or object to any part of my presentation, please do share, that, too. Your feedback helps me revisit my thinking on the subject of American Indians and children's literature.


Monday, February 23, 2009

"American Indians" in Google, some data

Passing along some data for your perusal...

I entered American Indians into Google's search window. Google automatically displays a list of popular searches that begin that way. A different set of terms appears if you stop at American Indian (singular), and you can do this with any phrase of your choice. The phrase is followed by the number of searches. Here's what came up. I'm reordering the info by number of hits:

American Indians food = 43,900,000
American Indians history = 30,900,000
American Indians names = 15,700,000
American Indians for kids = 6,570,000
American Indians today = 4,680,000
American Indians pictures = 3,960,000
American Indians culture = 3,880,000
American Indians tribes = 2,860,000
American Indians and alcohol = 2,430,000

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cynthia Leitich Smith presentation on Second Life

For those of you who know how to navigate Second Life, Cynthia Leitich Smith will be there on Tuesday, Feb 24th, at 3:00 CST. She'll talk about Tantalize and Eternal. The graphic sneak-peek's Cynthia has on her site are so cool!! (I copied one here.) I created a Second Life profile last year, but couldn't grasp the skills necessary to figure out how to move around. Click on over to her site for more details.

For those of you in the area of Westfield College in Massachusetts, I'll be giving a public lecture there on Tuesday evening in Scanlon Banquet Hall. There's no charge, so please do come if you can! I'll be there at the invitation of Vanessa Diana, Associate Professor of English at Westfield State.

And a heart congratulations to Cynthia... Eternal is in its 3rd printing.