Sunday, April 18, 2010

Portrayals of American Indians in SLJ's 2010 "Top 100 Children's Novels" - compiled by Elizabeth Bird - PART ONE

In his July/August 2009 editorial in Horn Book Magazine, Roger Sutton poses a question about eligibility for the Coretta Scott King Award. I was looking at Horn Book's articles online, trying to find Neil Gaiman's speech (the one he gave when he won the 2009 Newbery). I was doing that because I'd just read an interview with Gaiman, in which he said something that surprised me, and I wondered if he repeated it in his Newbery speech. He did not.  Here's what he said in the interview:
"The great thing about having an English cemetery is I could go back a very, very, very long way. And in America, you go back 250 years (in a cemetery), and then suddenly you’ve got a few dead Indians, and then you don’t have anybody at all, unless you decide to set it up in Maine or somewhere and sneak in some Vikings.”

I blogged that remark and provided some context for how I interpret it, too. [Update, April 18, 9:00 PM---Mr. Gaiman responded, clarifying his remarks, so please do go read what he said.] I'm reading his words after having spent the better part of the previous 24 hours studying (again) the ways that American Indians appear in Elizabeth Bird's Top 100 Children's Novels. I conclude that the ignorance on display in the Top 100 novels is alive and well---frighteningly so---in Mr. Gaiman. While he exhibits ignorance about American Indians in that remark, his book (at #80 on the list)  does not actually have anything to do with American Indians. Neither does L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. It is #40 on the list. Baum, however, was outright racist in the editorials he wrote for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Here's an excerpt from the editorial dated December 20, 1890:
"The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the gory of these Grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism."
Turning, now, from ignorance and racism of authors, to portrayals of American Indians in Elizabeth Bird's Top 100 Children's Novels. Here's my list (see notes at bottom):

#99 - The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks, published in 1980
#94 - Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome, published in 1930
#90 - Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan, published in 1985
#87 - The View from Saturday, by E. L. Konigsburg, published in 1996
#85 - On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in 1937
#78 - Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, published in 1943
#68 - Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, published in 1994
#63 - Gone Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enrich, published in 1957
#61 - Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli, published in 2000
#59 - Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, published in 2003
#50 - Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell, published in 1960
#46 - Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, published in 1961
#42 - Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in 1935
#41 - The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, published in 1958
#34 - The Watsons Go to Birmingham, by Christopher Paul Curtis, published in 1995
#31 - Half Magic, by Edward Eager, published in 1954
#25 - Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, published in 1868/1869
#24 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling, published in 2007
#23 - Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in 1932
#17 - Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, published in 1990
#16 - Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, published in 1964
#13 - Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, published in 1977
#1 - Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White, published in 1952

If I studied the Library of Congress info for these books, I think only one---Julie of the Wolves---would be categorized in some way as having to do with Native people. None of the authors above is known to be an American Indian, with the possible exception of Wilson Rawls. He said his mother was part Cherokee. He does not assert that identity for himself.

In a video interview, Elizabeth Bird talked about the lack of diversity on her list. There, she talks about how she developed the list. It was a tremendous amount of work, and I'm grateful to her for doing it. Her list provides us with a snapshot that is worth mulling over, for lots of reasons. My particular lens, of course, is American Indians. At 2:48, Elizabeth notes that the list lacks diversity.

It lacks diversity, I agree. Sherman Alexie, Joseph Bruchac, Louise Erdrich, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Richard Van Camp---none of the more successful Native writers are on the list. But overall, it does not lack for portrayals of American Indians.

I say that in jest, of course, because most of those portrayals are in some way, stereotypical or biased. If you are a librarian, and you use this list to build your collection, you will not be providing your readers with a single worthy image of American Indians. A few of them are innocuous---like the Indian blanket in Charlotte's Web---but most are problematic. From "Honest Injun" to sitting "Indian style" to hunting Indians, there's a lot to say.

In the coming days I will work with my notes and develop some observations, but I am pasting the notes below and invite your thoughts. (I apologize in advance for inconsistencies in style and format of presentation. Some of what you'll find was posted before to American Indians in Children's Literature.) If you use some of this info for something you write, please cite this blog as the source of your information.



Number 99 is The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, published in 1980. See Feb 10, 2010.

Number 94 is Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransom, published in 1930.
  • On page 16, Roger is "keeping a sharp lookout lest he should be shot by a savage with a poisoned arrow from behind a tree."
  • On page 137, the children come across what they call a "Red Indian wigwam" from which emerges "a very friendly savage".  Ransom's use of "Red Indian" was (is?) common in the United Kingdom.
  • On page 231, Nancy shouts "Honest Injun" .
  • On page 267, Nancy writes that John had "come at risk of his life to warn you that savage natives were planning an attack on your houseboat."
I think I'll have to find some time to study Swallows and Amazons.... 

Number 93 is Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, published in 1935. I wrote about it on Feb 10, 2010

Number 90 is Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, published in 1985. On page 17 is "Indian paintbrush".

Number 87 is The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg, published in 1996. Early in the book, there is a discussion of what constitutes diversity. Mrs. Olinski tells Mr. Rohmer that the Academic Bowl team includes "a Jew, a half-Jew, a WASP, and an Indian." (p. 22). Mr. Rohmer tells her the first three don't count, and that the proper term for the Indian is "Native American".  (The Indian on the team is East Indian.) 

Number 85 is On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The word "Indian" appears 12 times in the book, most of them about their time in Indian Territory. 
  • On page 143, Mary tells Laura to keep her sunbonnet on or "You'll be as brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?"
  • On page 218, Laura says "I wish I was an Indian and never had to wear clothes!" Course, Ma chides her for saying that, especially for saying it "on Sunday!"
I've written a lot about Wilder's books (see set of links at the bottom of this page), specifically, Little House on the Prairie, which I expect will be in the top tier of Elizabeth's survey. 

Number 78 is Johnny Tremain, written by Esther Forbes, published in 1943.  I'm going to have to reread that one...  I pulled it up on Google books and it looks like Forbes may have done a reasonable job describing the way the colonists dressed for the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773. The popular perception in America (thanks to a lithograph titled "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor" done in 1846, 73 years after the event took place) is that the colonists dressed in fringe, face paint and feathered headdresses, but they did not do that. Here's what Forbes wrote in Johnny Tremain about the colonists getting ready (p. 140):
...they started to assume their disguises, smootch their faces with soot, paint them with red paint, pull on nightcaps, old frocks, torn jackets, blankets with holes cut for their arms...
See? No fringed buckskin. On page 141, Forbes writes that Johnny "had a fine mop of feathers standing upright in the old knitted cap he would wear on his head..."

I have notes on this somewhere....  I don't recall red paint and feather caps, but the rest of what Forbes writes matches what I recall. I'm mostly glad to see the accuracy of her description of the disguises, but disappointed when I get to page 143:
"Quick!" he [Rab] said, and smootched his face with soot, drew a red line across his mouth running from ear to ear. Johnny saw Rab's eyes through the mask of soot. They were glowing with that dark excitement he had seen but twice before. His lips were parted. His teeth looked sharp and white as an animals.
The character, Rab, in his painted face, becomes animal like. That is a familiar frame: Indian people and animals, very much alike. And of course, it is wrong.

In her discussion of Johnny Tremain, Bird includes a clip from the 1957 Disney film of the movie. In the clip, the colonists, some in fringed clothes, some in knit caps with feathers stuck into them, some with headbands and feathers, and some with painted faces, sing "Sons of Liberty."

Number 73 is My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, published in 1959. The word "Indian" appears on six different pages.
  • On page 22, Sam writes that he read that river birch "has combustible oil in it that the Indians used to start fires."
  • On page 31, he remembers that Indians made dugout canoes with fire.
  • On page 43, he refers to feathers in an Indian quiver.
  • On page 65, Sam has pancakes that are flat and hard, which he imagines Indian bread is like. 
  • On page 108 is a reference to "playing cowboys and Indians."
  • On page 141, it is springtime, but aspens and birch trees "were still bent like Indian bows."

Number 66 is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. On February 5, 2007, I published Beverly Slapin's review of the book here. In a nutshell? Not recommended! [Note, April 16, 2010: Also see my review essay, "Thoughts on Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons", published on Feb. 25, 2010.]

Number 63 is Gone Away Lake written by Elizabeth Enrich in 1957. I did a search of content (used Google Books) and found four uses of "Indian" in the book.
  • Page 141: "Now and then (unnecessarily since they never looked back), he would freeze and stand still as an Indian in the shadows."
  • Page 198: "She just sat there, Baby-Belle did, with her arms folded on her chest staring at Mrs. Brace-Gideon severely, like an Indian chief or a judge or somebody like that."
  • Page 217: "the pale little crowds of Indian pipes and the orange jack-o'-lantern mushrooms that pushed up the needles."
  • Page 756: "in the distance, by the river's edge, a tiny Indian campfire burned with the colors of an opal."

In Gone Away Lake, one of the characters is named Minnehaha, which is from Longfellow. I don't know why she's named that. It is commonly regarded as an "Indian" name, but it is not. We can thank (or blame) Longfellow for so much of the mistaken information that circulates!

Number 61 is Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, published in 2000.   On page 10, Spinelli writes that Stargirl wears outrageous clothes to school. Among them is "An Indian buckskin." 

Number 59 is Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, published in 2003.   On page 206, Flatnose tells Basta that it will be hard to find Meggie, Mo, Elinor, and Dustfinger's trail in the dark. Flatnose replies "Exactly!" and "We're not bloody native trackers, are we?" 

Number 50 is Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, published in 1960.  I have not yet read this...  And that is a huge problem, given its status... 

Number 46 is Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, published in 1961.  

  • On page 10, "The land we lived on was Cherokee land, allotted to my mother because of the Cherokee blood that flowed in her veins." 
  • Page 43, "I reached way back in Arkansas somewhere. By the time my fist had traveled all the way down to the Cherokee Strip, there was a lot of power behind it.
  • On page 143, where Rubin says "A long time ago some Indians lived here and farmed these fields."
  • On page 254, Billy recalls that he "had heard the old Indian legend about the red fern. How a little Indian boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred."
According to Bird, much of the book is based on Rawls childhood in Scraper, Oklahoma where he lived until he was 15 or 16. Given his birthyear (1913), he was in Oklahoma from 1913 to 1928 or 1929. Scraper is in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, and is near Tahlequah, which is where the Cherokee Nation's offices are located. I was surprised, on reading Scholastic's guide for the book, to learn that Rawls's mother, Winnie Hatfield Rawls, was part Cherokee. The guide says (page 6):
"...she had been given some land in Oklahoma by the federal government. (The United States gave land to some Native Americans who had been displaced from their original land.)"
Gave?! Gave?!   Nope. The guide is referring to the process by which the United States government forcibly moved several Indian Nations from their homelands TO what came to be called Indian Territory, and then, took that land from them, too, through acts passed by Congress that were designed to break up their identity as Native Nations and allot them parcels of land.

But going back to the book itself, Rawls, who (if the guide is correct) was part Cherokee. It seems to me he was not at all familiar with that identity. He has the character, Rubin, saying "A long time ago some Indians lived here...." Was Billy part Cherokee? Maybe he was hiding that identity. Maybe Rawls and his family hid that identity. The violence inflicted on Native people during that time prompted many to hide it...  I'm curious about the legend, too. I wonder if that is a story from the Cherokees oral tradition? And I wonder why, when Billy went to Tahlequah to get the puppies, he doesn't mention any Cherokees there?

Number 42 is Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Published in 1935, I've had a lot to say on American Indians in Children's Literature about the book. Scroll down to the bottom and see the set of links, or, look over in the sidebars...

Number 41 is The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, published in 1958. Given its setting (1687, in Connecticut), there are references to fights with Indians, fights with Indians and wolves, and Indian attacks (see pages 40, 51, 59, 145, 187, 191, and 192).

Number 34 is The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.
  • Page 50: "...looked like we were in the Wild West and I was a wagon train and Byron was the Indians circling, waiting to attack
  • Page 88: "This looked like the Indians circling the wagons again, but this time it was Byron who had to be the white people!"

Number 31 is Half Magic by Edward Eager, published in 1954. On page 45, the children are approached by a "ragged Arab" to whom Martha says "How!" Mark hisses to her, under his breath "What do you think he is, an Indian?"

Number 25 is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, published in 1868 and 1869.
  • On page 201, "Laurie opened the parlor door and popped his head in very quietly. He might just as well have turned a somersault and uttered an Indian war whoop, for his face was so full of suppressed excitement and his voice so treacherously joyful that everyone jumped up..."
  • On page 245, "It was a pictorial sheet, and Jo examined the work of art nearest her, idly wondering what unfortuitous concatenation of circumstances needed the melodramatic illustration of an Indian in full war costume, tumbling over a precipice with a wolf at his throat, while two infuriated young gentlemen..."
Number 24 is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, published in 2007.  Reading it aloud with my daughter when it came out, we surprised when we got to page 216. At that point in the book, Harry is looking at a photograph of Albus Dumbledore's family. We were surprised to read:
"The mother, Kendra, had jet-black hair pulled into a high bun. Her face had a carved quality about it. Harry thought of photos of Native Americans he'd seen as he studied her dark eyes, high cheekbones, and straight nose, formally composed above a high-necked silk gown."

Number 23 is Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in 1932. I wrote about this on March 19, 2010, quoting the passage from the book where Pa, as a kid, played that he was hunting Indians. Here's the specific passage (from page 53), but do go read my entire entry on that day.
"I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians. I played I was fighting the Indians, until all woods seemed full of wild men, and then all at once I heard the birds twittering 'good night.' 

Number 20 is The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan, published in 2005.
  • On page 171: "It was one of those weird roadside curio shops that sell lawn flamingos and wooden Indians and cement grizzly bears and stuff like that.

Number 17 is Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, published in 1990.
  • On page 80, a kid sits "Indian-style" and, 
  • On page 150, John tells Maniac what he imagines: "the blacks sweeping across Hector one steaming summer night; torches, chains, blades, guns, war cries; marauding, looking, overrunning the West End; climbing in through smashed windows, doors, looking for whites, bloodthirsty for whites, like Indians in the old days, Indians on a raid... That's what they are, Giant John nodded thoughtfully, "today's Indians."
Number 16 is Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, published in 1964.
  • On page 4, Harriet and Sport talk about what they will be when they grow up. Writing about character names and professions in her notebook, she says "You've got to have a doctor, a lawyer---" and then, Sport interrupts, saying "And an Indian chief."
  • On page 96, Ole Golly blushes when Mr. Waldenstein calls her attractive. The text reads "The crimson zoomed up Ole Golly's face again, making her look exactly like a hawk-nosed Indian. Big Chief Golly, Harriet thought, what is happening to you?"
Number 13 is Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, published in 1977. This is from page 128:
After lunch, they trotted through the drizzle to the Smithsonian to see the dinosaurs and the Indians. There they came upon a display case holding a miniature scene of Indians disguised in buffalo skins scaring a herd of buffalo into stampeding over a cliff to their death with more Indians waiting below to butcher and skin them. It was a three-dimensional nightmare version of some of his own drawings.

Number 1 is Charlotte's Web by E. B. White, published in 1952. The word "Indian" appears twice, both times in reference to a blanket that Lurvy won.



Anonymous said...

I understand most of your objections, but I am confused by the references to Sarah, Plain and Tall, Harry Potter and The View from Saturday? Are you objecting to the content you describe? Do you want Native Americans to never appear in books by non - Native authors?

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Anonymous,

No, I don't object to all of this... I do want to call attention to it, for all of us to consider how and when a child might come across something about Indians.

I've got to do some counting. How many times does the word refer to an item (flower or blanket) as opposed to an actual American Indian person?

In this sample of books, there are two instances in which the author deliberately chose to tell her readers about the American Indian/Native American/Indian debate (what is the 'right' term to use). SATURDAY is one of those. The other is WALK TWO MOONS. I think Creech didn't do it well. I felt Creech was dismissive, not informative. There's a hint of derision in SATURDAY, but I need to think about it more before I come to that firm conclusion.

And Harry Potter, well, that was a surprise. I'm pretty sure Rowling was thinking about a painting of Pocahontas when she wrote that part of the book, but why did she do it? As I said (there was a link to my previous post about it), I am glad she didn't go anywhere with that particular passage.

As to your last question, I absolutely DO want non-Native writers to include Native characters, storylines, etc., but nobody is well-served by shallow, biased, stereotypical portrayals. It is not beyond any writer's ability to do it well.

Danielle said...

I have to admit that was surprised to see Harry Potter on this list, I don't recall that paragraph at all! Of course it's been quite awhile since I read it.

Wendy said...

I don't know whether you've read The View From Saturday, but the reference you cite is pretty clearly making fun of the principal and people who think they know best and insist that American Indians must be called Native Americans, while Indians from India might as well not exist. The derision is entirely toward the principal.

I've written before at some length about Half Magic, and how the passage you mention is used to mock the ignorance and passive racism of the white children.

I am puzzled that you object to (or at least call attention to) authors using the proper names "Indian pipe" and "Indian paintbrush" for flowers (what else were they supposed to say?), but not to White's use of the Navajo blanket in Charlotte's Web. Lurvy is anxious to have it as a sort of artifact, a cool thing. That seems to me like the sort of thing that usually bothers you.

I commented on the original post about the comments on Gone-Away Lake.

And by the way, Island of the Blue Dolphins, which you will detest with good reason, would most definitely be classified as "about American Indians".

I do think this is an INTERESTING way of looking at the list, and that the point about using this list to build collections (whether in libraries, schools, or in homes) is well-taken and important. But I think it's a mistake to combine the excerpts with serious racist issues, like the bit from Maniac Magee, with the excerpts that I think are non-issues, like the bit from Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Island of the Blue Dolphins is a YA historical novel about a woman, last of her tribe, who lived on San Nicolas, one of the islands in the Santa Barbara Channel. Her people were killed and/or forcibly taken to the mainland, I think to Santa Barbara (her feather cloak used to be in the local museum there), where I assume they were forcibly converted and quite likely died, as did many of the local Chumash. She was eventually found and taken away to the mainland, where she also died, IIRC not long after. It was a favourite book of mine growing up.

Another book, not on the list, but one which might be of interest, is called, I think The Diving Bell and has to do with Native Americans in Central or South America forced to dive for treasure (?) pearls (?) by the Spanish. It was one my niece read for school in California in about 1996 or so, when she was about 10.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

and before any random commenter decides that liking the O'Dell book is a sign of inherent racism, for a pre-tween girl who lived in a town where there was a Spanish mission and ruins of the adobes where the converted Chumash workers lived, the story was resonant in a local way. It was also about a girl who had been left entirely alone and survives with only animal companions for years. So in the mind of the young me, there was the scariness of the Aleut hunters and Spanish padres who raid the island and kidnap the people (and eventually the girl) and the amazing resilience of the girl herself. I don't know how accurate O'Dell's portrayal of the culture was, but it seems even now to be no worse than many historical novels. He's not Sutcliff or Trease, and tends toward the more romanticized versions of things, but I think for the time, he might have even been seen as progressive.

I do wonder how much of the way I read it has to do with the story or having parents and grandparents who pointed out that Spanish colonization was a bad thing for the locals.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, I find your use of the term East Indain, problematic. The difficulty generated by one culture's misuse of a term to apply to indigenous people in the Americas doesn't justify, to me, labeling the people in India as "some other kind of Indian."

Debbie Reese said...


Thanks for pushing me on the use of "East Indian." The phrase itself is from the book. This is from page 137:

He laughed nervously and said, "You look a bit like an Indian yourself."

Julian smiled. "I am a hybrid. I am in part what is called East Indian."

"Well, now, that is special," Mr. Fairbain said, smiling and looking out over the audience, and wanting to reinforce his compliment, asked, "What is your tribe?"

Dr. Rohmer paled to the point of translucence, and the audience gasped. Everyone--even those who had not had diversity training at taxpayer expense--knew that even though it was correct to recognize a person's ethnicity, it was not correct to comment upon it in public.

Are you quoting me with the "some other kind of Indian"? I can't find where I said that. I'll look again.

Anonymous said...

I remember my teacher reading "Island of the Blue Dolphins" to us in third grade. It's about a girl whose father is killed by the invading (Spanish?) settlers, and her tribe taken to the mainland while she lives alone on the island. It's fairly benign from what I recall, but I also liked the Little House books back then, so my memories should probably be taken with a few grains of salt.

Unknown said...

I just wanted to apologize for my comment on your previous Gaiman post. I both misread his statement and gave him way too much credit for intent. You were right, I was wrong.

green_knight said...

British usage is to often use 'Indian' as a blanket term for anything vaguely connection with the geographical region - an 'Indian Restaurant' could refer to Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi cuisines.

"He's Indian" = He's from India [or thereabouts]
"He's an Indian" = He's an American Indian

Anonymous said...

Re: Where the Red Fern Grows. I think you may be discounting the fact that the story is told from a child's point of view. Likely a child whose parents tried to enforce an identity that would be most profitable and safe in the environment they were "given."

I only comment because you seem genuinely outraged/confused by it . . . that's probably what he was told, or the impression that he got.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, those were quotation marks used "to indicate words used ironically or with some reservation."(POWL) I wish now that I'd just put the word "other" in quotes. I apologize for being curt. Your crapload-of-snippets posts always make me grouchy and I should know better than to post.

Tricia said...

I normally don't jump into the fray, but I need to respond to Anonymous from Tuesday, April 20, 2010 12:37:00 PM CDT.

I appreciate what you call "crapload-of-snippets posts," largely because I'm not a close reader, at least not in the way Debbie is. I've read most of the books mentioned in this post, and I would say I missed more than half of those references.

Debbie is right to push on our use of language and reference. For example, why use "Indian Paintbrush" when the plant is also known as Prairie-Fire? (Sarah Plain and Tall)

And why use talk about sitting "Indian-style" when there are so many other ways to describe sitting with your legs crossed?

What messages do these minor references send to kids who read them?

Some of these "snippets" could easily be fixed during the editing process if authors and editors were aware of them, for these kinds of inclusions and references add nothing to the text. As for the rest, I wish I knew how to address the stories that just get it wrong, but I don't.

We need someone like Debbie to remind us that the stereotypes are wrong, to catch us when we fall back on them, and to challenge writers to do better. We can and should.

Debbie Reese said...


What you called a "crapload-of-snippets" is a research method called "content analysis."

Anonymous said...

Hi Debbie, only recently discovered your blog during the Gaiman racefail and I'm really enjoying it.

I'd really be interested in reading your thoughts on the Swallows and Amazons series because it's actually one of my favourite series of children's books.

I'm not sure if you've read it before, but the children are strictly playing make-believe - there are no actual so-called "savages" except for the ones that exist in the children's minds. Which isn't to say that it isn't inherently problematic! Because of course it is - the children are playing make-believe with a stereotype. But I'd definitely be keen to see what you had to say about it.

JJYahn said...

I've been sifting through the comments for this post, and a critical question arises in my mind as I see arguments for or against books. I've learned quickly as a junior high LA teacher that stereotypes arise frequently in literature. Additionally, I've learned this often happens because in an author's attempt to mimic real life they include dialogue, imagery, expressions, etc. that are often stereotypical or offensive, but emulate real life situations.

My question is once you know this to be true in adolescent literature, what do you do? Do you keep a book that contains inappropriate American Indian references and comments, and take the time to discuss the stereotype, or do you eliminate it completely from your curriculum? It’s essential we decide if it is enough to address the issue, or if having such a book in our classroom poses a problem to big to be solved by meaningful discussion. While this blog focuses on American Indian literature, there are many other stereotypes out there occurring in literature. As we develop reading lists and approve curriculum we need to decide how we will deal with these references once we know they are there. I’m anxious to hear others opinions on how we should handle such references.

green_knight said...


I'd use it as a teachable moment. Children need to learn to read critically, to reflect on the opininons they are presented with. As this discussion proves, not all adults have acquired that ability.

Reading a book which slips under the children's offensiveness radar allows you to pick them up where they are right now, and show where they've glossed over something they might not agree with if it were presented out of context.

green_knight said...

I'm just having another thought about the original idea - have you counted other terms like 'Injun' or 'Native'? How do they compare?

gobsmacked said...

While I appreciate that you have a certain perspective about American Indians that you are serving in this particular way your post borders on the ridiculous.
My ancestors come from various cultures portrayed in literature. It would be an act of obsession for me to examine every book I read looking for references to Scandinavians or Jews.
My window currently harbors a plant we call a wandering jew, Our dog is named Loki. Is this an insensitive self loathing, or betrayal of my culture?
When normal everyday people read this kind of stuff they think you're a nut.
As a librarian I use care and follow a selection policy to choose books to put on our shelves. If I give credence to your suggestions what is left to select. It sounds like you are advocating censorship.
The right to read includes the right to read things you find off-putting, and it's not my job to make sure readers view what they read through a particular prism.
I"ll be surprised if this makes it past comment moderation, but it's really just a response to you anyway.

Allandaros said...


"As a librarian I use care and follow a selection policy to choose books to put on our shelves. If I give credence to your suggestions what is left to select. It sounds like you are advocating censorship. "


At what point did Ms. Reese say "You should remove these books from libraries?" "You should not use these books?" "These books have no value?"

Fun fact - she didn't. You're adding that in.

Zooming back a bit, there is a difference between saying "This content is problematic in how it presents American Indians" and "This book is bad." I would suspect that there are, along with some of the problematic presentations of American Indians listed (whether unthinking or deliberate), good points to several of these novels. Maniac McGee deals with the impact of racism on society (I don't remember exactly how well it does so, but that it does).

It's ridiculously important to consider the way in which our media depicts various cultures. Tricia, commenting above, does a better job explaining why than I'm able to do right now.

Gobsmacked, as a librarian, I'm sure that you're acquainted with the repeated controversies over the presence of Huckleberry Finn in schools. I'm sure you would say - and I would agree - that banning Finn because of the racist terminology and phrases which pervade the novel is unjustified, that the content of the book and its message ultimately send a message about celebrating diversity and freedom (Huck's internal debate about doing the "Christian" thing and letting Jim remain enslaved, or violating the mores of his society, possibly damning himself, and freeing Jim, for example).

BUT! At the same time, you would also (I hope) recognize that Twain's depiction of antebellum Mississippi is laden with racism, both in honest depiction of the society, and in Twain's own perceptions. I hope that you would realize that when Finn is being discussed or taught to children, that it is important to recognize the racism within the novel and discuss it.

I would hope that you can then follow the analogy to the books which Ms. Reese is discussing here. That while several of these books may have many admirable and worthwhile qualities, they also have problematic (through act or omission) depictions of American Indians. And that when those books are brought up, discussed, or taught, that it's really important to address what those depictions are doing, why they're not accurate, and so forth.

gobsmacked said...

“It's ridiculously important to consider the way in which our media depicts various cultures.”

“Debbie is right to push on our use of language and reference. For example, why use "Indian Paintbrush" when the plant is also known as Prairie-Fire? (Sarah Plain and Tall)”
(WHA! Give me a break, it’s called an Indian Paintbrush --- it’s even the state flower of Wyoming and probably other states and we’re getting a little over the top here!)
“Some of these "snippets" could easily be fixed during the editing process if authors and editors were aware of them, for these kinds of inclusions and references add nothing to the text.”
(Unbelievable! Many of these books were published years and years ago, when people were allowed to use words without stopping to deliver a sensitivity lecture along with them)

While the largest issue raised here is valid, the petty nitpicking of the names of objects and so on is twisting a valid point until it becomes unrecognizable. Why is it important to “push people on their use of language” in this pointless way? It accomplishes nothing and raises unnecessary grievances. I think we should point out differences in cultural references over time and the point about Huckleberry Finn is irrefutable, but come on “sitting Indian style?” is something to get worked up about? Really?

I absolutely reject the idea that there is even a reason to note the use of Indian in the well known name of a flower! This kind of extreme hypersensitivity does far more harm than good. Why would anyone now take the chance of presenting any native American story legend, reference or even calingl a plant an Indian Paintbrush when it opens them to the inane recitals of the grievance patrol. OMG what if I said something wrong!

We should all grow a spine and refuse to become victims of petty and, incidentally pointless posturing and save our outrage for things that are truly outrageous. I think what we’re talking about here is outrageously close to censorship.

green_knight said...


if you're not the person getting hurt it's easy to dismiss these terms. As for being allowed to offend bystanders... is that really a right you wish to claim?

(If you wish to offend someone, do it deliberately and with maximum effect. And be prepared for the offended person to react appropriately.)

I disagree with you that a constant, low-level barrage of insults should be ignored. Letting them pass without comments means that you are creating an environment in which insults can thrive... and that's a Bad Thing in my book.

gobsmacked said...

I’m not claiming the right to offend. (what a cowardly accusation) I’m claiming the right of people to speak (write) in everyday, terms and not made to feel as if they are offending.

I could claim offense at many books based on references to matters from my culture, (believe me, there are many, you incorrectly assume I haven’t been hurt by stereotypes, on what basis?) but why would I? Will it make it go away? It really only makes the person who takes such gratuitous offense into an object of ridicule.

I also take exception to the notion that references to cultural items are insults. I am not creating an environment of insults by having the books Ms Reese lists in my library. Should I go through every book and nit pick for possible insults and note them in a list on the covers? Your assumption that my library is a Bad Thing because I object to being censored is an insult in itself.

How do you suggest libraries deal with censors? This is the worst kind of soft censorship. I was warned about censorship repeatedly almost incessantly in every library class. This fits the description of censorship. Just because it isn’t a demand to remove materials doesn’t make it less so.

Amy B. said...


I don't feel you quite understand the point of this post. It's not necessarily an injunction against every problematic reference; in fact, it's not even necessarily saying that every reference above is problematic, especially individually. Just because someone points out a term does not mean they are decrying it.

And no one is asking you to censor anything in your library. All that this post is asking (at least from what I can tell) is for awareness and thoughtful consideration of such references.

For example, the term "Indian paintbrush" for the plant is widespread. And in itself, it's not necessarily a bad thing. But in the context of references to American Indians in children's literature as a whole, it does become problematic. As you can see by the passages highlighted, the majority of American Indian references are tied back to animals or nature, both in the "savage" and "noble" stereotypes. If there were more true and broad depictions of American Indians in children's literature, then "Indian paintbrush" wouldn't mean much. As it is, though, the term merely adds yet another instance of "American Indian=nature" rather than "American Indian=person."

And no one is expecting to go back in time and convince the authors to alter their text. That's not the point. The point here is to notice such things, to think about them, and to hopefully help children notice and think about them, and in that way foster literature that is more inclusive and true to the experiences of all.

Josh said...

"I don't object to all of this... I do want to call attention to it, for all of us to consider how and when a child might come across something about Indians.

"I've got to do some counting. How many times does the word refer to an item (flower or blanket) as opposed to an actual American Indian person?"

Something about Jews and Scandinavians and Censorship.

I mean, I'm an American Jew who's very worried about Christian supremacists; but I gotta say that the attempt to make a point by comparing references to American Indians to references to Jews and Norse Gods is disturbing.

And as a scholar who's interested in discussing diversity issues, I can't say I'm encouraged by a librarian who, upon encountering Dr. Reese's research, says "O noes u r censoring mah bookshelfs."