Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lynne Reid Banks - The Indian in the Cupboard, where Omri "got an Indian" (chapter 1)

Chapter 1 - Birthday Presents

Page 1:
It was not that Omri didn't appreciate Patrick's birthday present to him. Far from it. He was really very grateful---sort of. It was, without a doubt, very kind of Patrick to give Omri anything at all, let alone a secondhand plastic Indian that he himself had finished with.

Page 2:
"Do you really like him?" asked Patrick as Omri stood silently with the Indian in his hand.
"Yes, he's fantastic," said Omri in only a slightly flattish voice. "I haven't got an Indian."
"I know."
"I haven't got any cowboys either."
"Nor have I. That's why I couldn't play anything with him."
Omri opened his mouth to say,  "I won't be able to either," but, thinking that might hurt Patrick's feelings, he said nothing, put the Indian in his pocket, and forgot about it.

Most people know exactly what Banks is talking with when she introduces the "plastic Indian" that Patrick gives to Omni. A great many people in my generation had easy access to these plastic Indians, but they're a lot harder to get---thankfully---these days:

The opening paragraph to Indian In the Cupboard sets a lot of people right on edge. Sociologist Michael Yellow Bird (he's Sahnish and Hidatsa) wrote a terrific article about those plastic Indians. It's called "Cowboys and Indians: Toys of Genocide, Icons of American Colonalism." It was published in the Fall 2004 issue of Wicazo Sa Review.

You might read "Toys of Genocide?!" and be taken aback by the word 'genocide', but Yellow Bird's article helps students in my Intro to American Indian Studies courses see just how problematic the toys are...  Here's an excerpt from p 35:
"Imagine if children could also buy bags of little toy African-American slaves and their white slave masters, or Jewish holocaust prisoners and their SS Nazi guards, or undocumented Mexicans and their INS border patrol guards." 
He goes on:
"Imagine if the African-American set included little whips and ropes so that the white slave masters could flog the slaves that were lazy and lynch those who defied them. Imagine if the border guards in the Mexican toy set came with little nightsticks to beat the illegal aliens, infrared scopes on their rifles to shoot them at night, and trucks to load up those that they caught."
And he continues:
"Imagine if the Jewish and Nazi toys included little barbed-wire prison camps and toy trains to load up and take prisoners to the toy gas chambers or incinerators."

Omri is tired of the plastic toys he and Patrick play with, but this gift is especially useless to both of them because neither one has a cowboy. They go together, according to Banks, so they can... so they can..... so they can... what?!  His point, of course, is that we cannot imagine the other toy sets, but we easily, readily, even happily endorse playing Cowboys and Indians...

Later in the article he talks about how he felt paying for a bag of the plastic Indians, to use in his classes...  He pulled out his wallet and took out out a dollar bill and saw George Washington. He thought of how Washington is called a founding father, but that the Seneca called him "Caunotaucarius" which means the town destroyer because Washington sent troops through Seneca territory, burning down villages, destroying crops and stored foods, killing many, and leaving the rest to starve through a bitter winter. On the five dollar bill Yellow Bird pulls out next is Lincoln, repeating that analysis with him and then with Andrew Jackson (he's on the 20 dollar bill), too. I can send you a copy of the article if you don't have access to it.

Editor's note, Oct 22, 2014: Not sure why I stopped after page two! Do I want to pick up that book and read it, again, and add to this post? Not really. Thinking about it, though, because there's more to say about it. Lot more to say...  


Seth Owen said...

This seems an overly sensitive take on these childhood toys. Certainly there were many problematic aspects of the whole Cowboys & Indians play environment but comparing it to either slavery or the Holocaust is inaccurate and risks trivializing those historical events.
Unlike either slaves or Nazi targets, Native Americans were independent and armed sovereign nations fighting to retain their independence. Unfortunately for them they were unsuccessful, but they made a gallant effort which makes them a legitimately interesting story and topic for history-based play.
The genocidal aspects of the interaction between Native peoples and the newcomers lie more in what happened after the defeat of the Indians than in the struggle itself.

Adelaide Dupont said...

Back in 1996 I saw the film of Cupboard, and I have also read one of the sequels.

Imagining having any of the other "oppressor toys" ... was a stretch.

And thinking about Washington from the Seneca perspective ...

Debby Dahl Edwardson said...

I don't buy the argument that comparing the "cowboy and Indian" experience to the Holocaust or slavery trivializes these events. It is more likely that this argument is the result of centuries worth of desensitization, greased by the cowboy and Indian myth. The goal of the remarkably brutal westward movement was stated genocide.

As for the argument that Indians were independent and armed sovereign nations--were not the Africans also independent and armed sovereign nations?

Or to put it through another lens, would it be okay, then, to have WWII play sets with white American solders and "Japs"?

jpm said...

Seth Owen understates the indigenous cause and the challenges. We are not taught the realities of what happened in most US history courses at any level of education; participating in a well-taught Native American History course may be the only way to break free of the mainstream view of what happened here.

As Debbie Dahl Edwardson states in her response to Seth, there were independent sovereign indigenous nations, and they were armed, and they did not give up easily in the face of the onslaught... As she suggests, wasn't it that was at issue, more than ? Survival of communities, of cultures, as well as of families and individuals? sounds high-minded and all, but really the word implies something very different from , something far removed on (say) Maslow's hierarchy of needs from .

The genocide was not waiting in the wings till after the wars; it merely took on different forms then.

Reading Seth's words, I balked at the choice of the phrase "gallant effort because it feels like a trivialization of the need/wish/struggle to survive. If someone you care for is fighting for his/her life against unfair odds in the form of an opponent whose main wish is to annihilate him/her, is it enough to memorialize that as a "gallant effort"? I guess it's important to recognize that the justice/injustice component is missing from phrases like that one.

Cowboy/Soldier-and-Indian play, we need to remember, is not so much "based on history" as it is based on Hollywood versions of history, which result in a somewhat perverted perspective that Debbie Reese has addressed many times in her work.

jpm said...

Yikes, something happened to my text -- either I messed up or words were garbled in cyberspace. My second paragraph should have read:

As Debbie Dahl Edwardson states in her response to Seth, there were independent sovereign indigenous nations, and they were armed, and they did not give up easily in the face of the onslaught... As she suggests, wasn't it survival that was at issue, more than independence? Survival of communities, of cultures, as well as of families and individuals? Independence sounds high-minded and all, but really the word implies something very different from continuing to exist, something far removed on (say) Maslow's hierarchy of needs from Survival.

Betsy Mc said...

jpm and Debby Dahl Edwardson have said it all most eloquently. Unfortunately I have seen packages of cowboys and Indians at the Dollar General store - interestingly they are all bright red - both the cowboys and the Indians. Years ago, when it came time to dig out toys for my grandchildren, I was in a drawer of my brother's childhood toys and came across his set of plastic figures. Even back then before I was as enlightened by your blog as I am now, I was appalled at the thought of giving them to the kiddos and tossed them out. I do think the analogy of toys from other historic events is valid - we white, middle-western older folks just need to admit how flawed our history is.

Anonymous said...

I understand why there is discretion towards the view the "Indian in the cupboard". It is very controversial because although it could offensive to many people and although these are just child toys, it gives children a specific view of Indians and that will stay with them for majority of their lives. It is hard to think that something as small as a childs toy could have that much of an impact.


Anonymous said...

Was so disappointed to see a bag of cowboy and Indian toys featured in this month's Real Simple magazine suggestions of holiday toys.

Paul said...

My earlier attempt at a comment did not appear to pass moderation, so I will try to reframe:

1) In Response to Debby Dahl Edwardson, as a child I did indeed own a set of American Marine plastic soldiers and a set of Japanese soldiers for them to fight against. Plastic WWII soldiers are still a popular childrens toy as far as I know.
2)The article compares "cowboy and indian toys" to hypothetical toys recreating genocide and slavery and describes the paraphenalia "whips and ropes" "gas chambers" in detail. No equivalents are provided for the "cowboys and indians" toys.
Am I missing something in the content of these toys? Or is the truth of how these toys whitewash genocide more complex than portrayed in the quoted sections of the article?

Paul said...

I read the article and I guess I can answer my own questions. Michael Yellow Bird (who I guess would have a lot to say about plastic soldiers in general) is indeed talking about the many and complex ways these toys embody racism and colonialism. The the hypothetical comparisons are less central to his argument than making the point that any toy that encourages you to kill indigenous people (or anyone who looks different to you) is a bad thing.