Monday, September 20, 2010

Political ideologies

Taking a quick moment out of preparing for today's classes by pointing to a neat intersection between the readings for Intro to American Indian Studies, and, the Politics of Children's Literature (both are courses I'm teaching this semester at the University of Illinois).

For Intro to AIS, we're studying Wallace Coffey and Rebecca Tsosie's article, "Rethinking the Tribal Sovereignty Doctrine"published  in the Stanford Law and Policy Review.  Here's the parts that intersects with the chapter we're discussing in the children's lit course. Coffey and Tsosie write:
A prime example of the link between legal doctrine and the script that emerges from American history is the infamous "Doctrine of Discovery" that undergirds Marshall's understanding in Johnson v. McIntosh that Indian nations retain a mere "right of occupancy" on their lands while the European sovereigns perfected the balance of the fee simple simply upon "discovery and settlement." (122) Chief Justice John Marshall described Indian people as
fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country, was to leave the country of a wilderness; to govern them as a distinct people, was impossible, because they were as brave and as high spirited as they were fierce, and were ready to repel by arms every attempt on their independence. (123)
Just above that, they cite an opinion by Justice Rehnquist wherein he cites the 1965 Oxford History of the American People. In writing his opinion, Rehnquist relies on this passage:
The Plains Indians... [were organized into units] of a few hundred souls, which might be seen in the course of its wanderings encamped by a watercourse with tipis erected; or pouring over the plain, women and children leading dogs and packhorses with the trailing travois, while gaily dressed braves loped ahead on horseback. They lived only for the day, recognized no property rights, robbed or killed anyone if they thought they could get away with it, inflicted cruelty within a qualm and endured torture without flinching. (120).
What I wish to emphasize for now is "the link between legal doctrine and the script that emerges from American history" as I share (below) what we're reading in Perry Nodelman's The Pleasures of Children's Literature (p. 121):
[P]olitical ideologies almost always work to distribute power unequally among people in a society, and to justify the unequal distribution.
Coffey and Tsosie are talking about legal cases in which American Indian tribes lost their land. They cite supreme court justices who find that Indians don't deserve their land because, the justices would have us believe, Indians were---and are---different and inferior.

Though the justices cited the Oxford text, they could just as easily have cited passages from children's books! Maybe the justices were PRIMED to believe what they read in the Oxford text BECAUSE they read some of these award-winning and classic works in children's literature! See how nicely all these stereotypes work out to disadvantage American Indians?


Perry Nodelman said...

I love this logic: "to govern them as a distinct people was impossible, because they were as brave and as high spirited as they were fierce, and were ready to repel by arms every attempt on their independence." So you don't like being pushed around and dare to resist and fight back? Well, now, that just shows how very, very much we need to push you around.

Jean Mendoza said...

Well said, Perry -- and more than a little hideously ironic, given how the United States moved from colony to nation.

Melissa Thompson's 2001 article in Lion & Unicorn, In a Sea of Good Intentions, is a good resource for anyone who wants to follow up on what Debbie has pointed out here about legal "literature" (including the writings of John Marshall) and children's lit.

Katherine Langrish said...

Besides, even if these depictions of the Indian people had been accurate, it still doesn't provide a moral excuse - let alone an imperative - for taking their land. (One of my neighbours owns a big garden which he is allowing to disappear under weeds. He isn't using his garden 'well' by a gardener's standards, but that doesn't give the local gardening club the right to take it over.)

Beverly Slapin said...

Hi, Deb--

For an excellent discussion of the "Doctrine of Discovery" and more legal history of racism in America, I highly recommend LIKE A LOADED WEAPON: THE REHNQUIST COURT, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND THE LEGAL HISTORY OF RACISM IN AMERICA by Robert A. Williams, Jr. (Lumbee).