Sunday, October 10, 2010

Part II --- Neil Gaiman on "a few dead Indians"

On October 8th, ithiliana did a close read of Neil Gaiman's "Blog on a Train" blog post. His post is the one in which he addressed the "few dead Indians" remark he made in 2008 that I wrote about in April of 2010. I'm writing, here, about ithiliana's analysis because I like what she says on her LiveJournal. I read her work when I can. She is, as a dear friend said, hardcore. That friend and myself like hardcore writing. 

In her analysis, Ithiliana made some good points. For one, she notes that his apology is part of a much longer post. As such, she sees his apology as being buried. He could have featured that response as a stand-alone item. She's right. In fact, I would have preferred that Gaiman wrote a stand-alone post.

Ithiliana wrote:
Lots of linguistic scholarship exists on how badly people with greater authority/power do apologies to people who have less authority/power, but I think Gaiman's fauxpology goes even further into bad, considering he's blah blah award winning author. Or maybe, from another perspective, it's a well done manipulation that is designed to highlight his power and authority while "graciously" offering apologies (without ever once saying, I'm sorry, I screwed up) to the little people out there (multiple ones, by the way, as you'll see if you read the link of my snarky summary).

As I wrote my post yesterday (Neil Gaiman on "a few dead Indians"), I went back and forth with myself as I thought about what Gaiman said. He offered an apology. A Miss-Manners-type-person would say I should accept his apology. 

But, I didn't want an apology.

There a lot to gain by reading and studying what ithiliana said. She is taking a certain angle on what Gaiman said. My angle is different.

I wasn't hurt by what he said, and I wasn't offended either. I can't afford the energy it would take to be offended everytime I come across something like "a few dead Indians." Part of what I'm doing with American Indians in Children's Literature is compiling the evidence of just how much this happens. I focus on these occurrences in children's and young adult books (see for example, my analysis of the Elizabeth Bird's Top 100 Children's Novels), but sometimes, I point to other incidences, too, which provide societal context for what occurs in children's books (see my post about a kid playing Indian in a Tommy Hilfiger ad).

The "few dead Indians" situation, in my view, called---not for an apology---but for something else.

What Neil Gaiman says is a big deal because of who he is... An award-winning and best-selling author who has, because of his books for children and adults, become a celebrity. Does who he is, I wondered, make him a person with greater authority and power as compared to me? Does his status make me someone with less authority/power, and therefore, should I be grateful that he paid any attention at all to my post about "a few dead Indians" and his subsequent Tweets to me about it?

Some would say "yes, Debbie, you should be grateful that Neil Gaiman paid any attention to you!"

I disagree because I have some power and authority, too, based on my research and writing and my advocacy for Native peoples. How any of us defines power and authority is relative to where we stand, the perspectives we put forth, and the people who pay attention to what we say. Did he choose to comment on my "few dead Indians" post because someone (his agent, perhaps?) told him that children's book authors, parents, teachers, librarians, professors, editors, and reviewers read my site?

Were his actions motivated by a sincere interest to acknowledge that he screwed up? Or were they motivated by an attempt to maintain a positive profile? Or both? Or, neither?!

Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain. A lot more people in the world now know that a remark like "a few dead Indians" merits attention. I didn't want an apology (yeah, I know, that's starting to sound redundant), but in truth, I wanted more than what Gaiman offered. I thanked him yesterday, not for the apology, but for being willing to publicly share his reaction and thought process. That is important! He wrote:
I was put out of sorts by Deb's initial post (mostly because I was reading it going "but that OBVIOUSLY wasn't what I meant"), and was idiotically grumpy on Twitter, but when I was called on it (by Pam Noles), and finally looked at the actual words recorded, I realised that people were perfectly sensibly taking what I said to indicate... 
He provides an example that other writers could use. First reactions from Sharon Creech, Ben Mikaelsen, Ann Rinaldi, and Anne Rockwell to my critiques of their words and books were like Gaiman's. They were defensive, too. Have they revisited that defensive reaction? Privately, perhaps, but to my knowledge, not publicly, as Gaiman did. His reaction aside, he gave his readers three options as to how his remark might be read. Continuing with what I excerpted above, he wrote:
... that I thought that a) the US was pretty much unpopulated before the arrival of the white colonists in the 17th century, and/or that b) I was being dismissive of the slaughter of Native Americans, or simply that c) Native Americans were somehow inconsequential in the history of the Americas. (None of which was my intention. But intentions only take you so far.)
As I said when I first wrote about his remark, I was pretty sure he knew better, and I think what he said above is evidence of that. He's told us what he thinks and he acknowledges that intent matters little.

I would have liked him to go further than he did. I would have liked him to say "I should have corrected myself right away. I should have said something when the interview was published. But, I didn't." He tells us that he knew it was a stupid thing to say, but that he just moved on. His decision to just move on is important for him and all of us to consider. WHY did he just move on? Did he think nobody would notice? Well, he was right, wasn't he? Nobody noticed for over a year! How many times was that interview read? How many people read it and didn't notice that he said "a few dead Indians"?!

That is the problem. Hundreds (thousands? millions?) of times, those words were read, and nobody pointed them out. What I wanted from Neil Gaiman was for him to say this:









See what I wanted from Neil Gaiman? Due to his status, he is a person of influence. I wanted him to use that influence and that incident in a much larger way than he did. If he did, his words would be a powerful force that would work towards a decrease in the messed-up ways that American Indians and Indigenous peoples are portrayed in children's and young adult books, and in society (like the Hilfiger ad), too.

Can you imagine what the book publishing world would do if his million-plus fans (assuming he said what I suggested above) wrote to, say, HarperCollins, the publisher of Little House on the Prairie ( to say

"this book is messed up. Yeah, some regard it as a classic, but, it misrepresents and miseducates Native and non-Native children about the life of Native and non-Native people living in Indian Territory in the 1800s."

Can you imagine a scenario in which Native parents didn't have to think about keeping their children out of school on the day their teachers plan a Thanksgiving reenactment? Or, when their classmates were going to do a "land run" like the one that took place in Oklahoma? If you pause for just a minute, can you imagine how much of that sort of thing goes on?

With this post, am I alienating Neil Gaiman and his fans and anyone who read his apology and think well of him for offering it? Maybe, but I'm choosing to think that amongst that group of people there are a great many who will read what I've said and be motivated to think even further about the ways American Indians are represented in the books their children read, and, that seeing it for themselves, they'll be motivated to take action.


Cryogaijin said...

One's voice on the internet can be a powerful thing. While it is true that I exclusively follow celebs, I've picked my celebs with some care. Neil Gaiman I follow not so much because I am a fan (Which I am, mildly) but because the works that influenced him the most are the same works I grew up with. (Roger Zelazny, etc) As such I've actually read more of your blog than his.

Given that I'm dating a yup'ik (eskimo) girl, there may be reasons for this.

I will admit to having my own biases on the subject; there is a great deal of "whitewashing" of the history of northern people. For example, many laypeople consider Aleuts and Athabaskans to be "eskimos" not "indians" which virtually all native alaskans find offensive. Likewise most people visiting alaska tend to refer to the Eskimo groups up here (Notably the Yup'ik and Inupiat) as "Inuit" which is also found to be offensive. (They consider it to be a made-up PC word that doesn't apply.)

The subject of race relations is far more complex than most people realize, and you generally won't notice until you become embroiled in them.

Claire said...

I find your commentary on this and your blog at large so enlightening and interesting and thought prompting. Thank you!

WyldChyld said...

This is worse than ungracious. Making a mountain out of a molehill is forgivable, but taking out your (righteous) anger on a man who misspoke is inappropriate at best. Just because Neil Gaiman doesn't say EXACTLY what you want him to say does not mean that he should bear criticism for it. He is a storyteller, and as such it is not his role or place to further the agenda of ANYONE. Holding him (or anyone) to that standard only ensures that your message will never get through--and if it does, it will be upbraided or ignored or dismissed, which is a shame.

Alex said...

I have a huge amount of respect for what you are achieving with this blog but I think in this case your unrest is misdirected. Yes, people need to put a lot more thought into how American Indians are considered and portrayed (especially prominent authors) but I think Neil Gaiman was incredibly humble to offer such a public apology. I realise that you weren't after an apology but I don't consider that a reason to shrug one off when given. To be fair to Gaiman, and please do not think I am belittling your cause, it really is not his battle to fight. Out of the many authors who seem to ignore the very existence of American Indians he is one of the few who have given them an important place in his work (see American Gods).

I will admit to being a Neil Gaiman fan so you can call me biased if you like. I will also admit to being part American Indian (also a Jew by the way) if that helps even it out a bit.

I will say one more thing, I find your work very interesting and would never have stumbled on it were it not for the link on Gaiman's blog. Surely even as a minor thing that in itself is helping raise awareness for your cause? It raised MY awareness anyway!

TakesTheCake said...


I didn't read Debbie's post as a literal directive to have NG say exactly what she had put down. She's raising larger questions about his response that he himself didn't bring up, and possible reasons for this occurrence.

Racism and white supremacy today are largely expressed by what is considered inocuous - or what people like you would consider "molehills."

So, for you to respond by saying "Debbie, you're making a big deal out of this" easily comes across as racist.

Do you really believe that human beings, including NG, should not speak against racism? Anti-Semitism? Hate speech?

I hope not.

This is not Debbie's agenda.
This is everyone's agenda.

I hope you take it upon yourself to do some further readings, on this blog and elsewhere (try some Frantz Fanon). And in so doing, I hope this becomes your issue too.

Anonymous said...

Dear Neil Gaiman Fans, if you are thinking of making a critical comment, please just don't. I'm pretty sure Mr. Gaiman wrote his post very carefully so as to minimize comment on this firestorm. I can't believe he would thank you for stirring things up on his behalf.

If you don't agree with Debbie's position, maybe you could just follow the blog for a while and bring up your disagreement in the future so it sounds as if this is a considered opinion of yours and not just you ranting on Gaiman's behalf, which frankly, is good only for embarrassing yourself and the man you are trying to stick up for.

I assure you that Debbie, if not all of her commenters, will listen carefully to your opinion and respond as thoughtfully as she can.

WyldChyld said...

TakesTheCake, Reese said quite specifically: "What I wanted from Neil Gaiman was for him to say this:" That sounds pretty literal to me. Whatever she meant, she is clearly using the misconstrued words of a very decent man to further her agenda, however admirable that agenda may be. I am not questioning her intentions, only her methods.

And what do you mean "people like me?" THAT sounds prejudiced. Yet you have the nerve to call me racist? Or just my words? That's reprehensible. Racism is a very serious charge, yet you throw it around like a poisonous football.

You have also seriously misrepresented my words, what I can only take to be intentional deception. I never said "You're making a big deal out of this." I never insinuated that it wasn't a big deal. I never even said Reese was making a mountain out of a molehill; in fact, I was only regurgitating her own words to make my point, which is that no author should be coerced into turning his storytelling into a vendetta to persecute "racists." I put the term in quotations because you use the epithet so loosely.

For your information, I am currently enrolled in a Native American anthropology class. I find it very interesting, which is part of the reason I came to this site. It is unfortunate that, far from being given a warm welcome, I was accused of being a racist. No one despises white supremacy more than me (you probably ASSUMED I was white). But intentions always come secondary to agenda, which in this case seems to be a rigid adherence to political correctness that libelously labels people as "racists" for the slightest misstep. How classy, how cordial.

Debbie Reese said...

Anon at 1:03 PM---

Thanks for the info re the use of Inuit. I didn't know that.

Definitely, the Yup'ik and Inupiat peoples are grossly stereotyped in children's books. For example, Igloos are often shown to be the size of dog houses. I wrote about that on Dec 31, 2007:

Looking at the post today, I see I used "Inuit" and will need to find Brett's book to see if I used it because she used it, and if so, I'll need to clarify all of that.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Claire!

WyldChyld---Clearly, you and I have different views of what a response to Gaiman might best be done---or not done. We could debate all of that, but I'm not sure how productive that would be.

In your second comment, you noted that you're in an Anthro class. I wonder if your prof is providing you with readings by Native writers and researchers.

If not, you might want to take a look at Vine Deloria's book, CUSTER DIED FOR YOUR SINS, specifically his chapter about anthropologists.

You might want to listen to Floyd Crow Westerman's song, based on Deloria's chapter. Here's a youtube link to it:

And you might want to look at Beatrice Medicine's book, LEARNING TO BE AN ANTHROPOLOGIST AND REMAINING 'NATIVE'---see here for info:

You might also take a look on my blog for things I've written about the work of early anthropologists, or, my article PROCEED WITH CAUTION, published in LANGUAGE ARTS. If you send me an email, I can send it to you.

TakesTheCake said...


"Whatever she meant, she is clearly using the misconstrued words of a very decent man to further her agenda, however admirable that agenda may be. I am not questioning her intentions, only her methods."

So I'm curious: how would your methods be different? What would you do differently?

"And what do you mean "people like me?" THAT sounds prejudiced. Yet you have the nerve to call me racist? Or just my words?"

Yes - I admit that I probably said "people like you" to get a rise out of you, but that's all.

"That's reprehensible. Racism is a very serious charge, yet you throw it around like a poisonous football."

Nope. I wasn't calling you a racist. Your statement "comes across as being racist." This poisonous football is being thrown all around our society, every minute of every day. You know this. Do you hesitate to catch it when it's directed at you? Your analogy of the poisonous football is a great one - because we are all caught up in this awful game, together. And all of us have to put it to an end. You are part of this game just as much as Debbie is, just as much as Neil Gaiman is, just as much as I am. Wouldn't you agree?

"I never said "You're making a big deal out of this." I never insinuated that it wasn't a big deal. I never even said Reese was making a mountain out of a molehill"

I interpreted that from your comment here: "Making a mountain out of a molehill is forgivable..."

"no author should be coerced into turning his storytelling into a vendetta to persecute "racists."

In the original incident, NG was not storytelling. He was being interviewed. Nobody is asking for him to persecute anybody else.

"For your information, I am currently enrolled in a Native American anthropology class."

This does not automatically give you (or me, or anyone) a pass to be free from ignorance.

"No one despises white supremacy more than me (you probably ASSUMED I was white)."

You don't need to be white to be racist - I've said some racist/unthinking/stereotypical/prejudicial/ignorant things in my time and I am far from white. I don't expect you to be white.

"I find it very interesting, which is part of the reason I came to this site. It is unfortunate that, far from being given a warm welcome, I was accused of being a racist....But intentions always come secondary to agenda, which in this case seems to be a rigid adherence to political correctness that libelously labels people as "racists" for the slightest misstep. How classy, how cordial."

WyldChyld, this is Debbie's blog - and this is also, to the extent that she feels it appropriate, a public forum for debate and discussion. I responded to your original comment, which was far from neutral. You sounded pretty definite about what you felt Debbie was doing. Did you not expect to get challenged? Are such issues of racism, to you, warm and fuzzy things to be cuddled? You yourself have stated that it is a poisonous football! I agree!

And are her words going to hold you back from challenging yourself to learn more? Are mine? Are her words going to be "ignored or dismissed" by you? Yes -- that would be a shame.

Someone dear to me always says, "Everyone deserves a chance to learn." WyldChyld, ultimately my argument is not with you as a person. We both (we all) share a common enemy that makes ordinary people like NG say things they don't mean to say (things they don't sometimes know they're saying) - and it's that enemy we need to defeat.

You still haven't answered my question to you: is racism not a problem that belongs to all of us, Neil Gaiman included? Therefore, is speaking against racism not everyone's agenda?

Debbie Reese said...


Thanks for writing. A couple of questions. You spelled 'realise' with an s, so I'm guessing you're in England? And, you're part Native. I'd love to hear more about how you or perhaps your ancestors ended up there, and what your tribal nation is, too.

I've not read American Gods, but it got mixed reviews for Native content.

Last, I'm glad you visited my site and took a few minutes to write. I hope you stay around and read more.

Debbie Reese said...

WyldChyld and TakesTheCake,

I moderate comments on my blog in order to keep spam from appearing, and, because I sometimes get obscene or angry rants that don't address the topic under discussion.

I've okayed every comment submitted so far but I don't want the comment-conversation to become a personal fight about who is or isn't racist, etc.

If I think that a submitted comment has something in it that might help with this conversation, I'll okay it for upload, but if not, you won't see it.

It makes me a bit uncomfortable to say that I'll control what appears on the site, but, I think you can look over my site and read all the comments submitted and see a lot of dissent to my writing, and sometimes, anger. I don't delete/deny dissent. I think it is important to share and study differing perspectives on the topics I write about.

That word---racist---is what caused the firestorm over Gaiman's "few dead Indians" back in April. It is a word that immediately sets people on edge. I rarely use it. I didn't use it to describe Gaiman, nor do I think he's racist.

There's a lot of racism out there, some of it deliberately so, but most of it, in my view, is due to ignorance. I use that word 'ignorance' to mean 'not knowing' rather than 'stupid.'

And the 'not knowing' about American Indians is really really deep and its all over the place. From the books children read to the watermelong I bought in the store two nights ago (it had a sticker on it from "Indian Farms" and the logo was the stereotypical Indian-in-a-headdress).

I think that depth and pervasiveness is why the reporter didn't push Gaiman on his remark, and, its the reason nobody voiced an objection to it.

TakesTheCake said...

Debbie, I apolgise if I appear to have "thrown up" on your blog! You are correct - words are powerful, and it behoves me to consider how I use them.

Debbie Reese said...

TakesTheCake---You didn't throw up. If you had, I wouldn't have okayed your comment.

Don't take my last comment as a suggestion that you go away.

You said some things that I, too, would have said in response to WyldChyld.

knitography said...

I actually found your blog through this incident with Neil Gaiman - I'm a fan, though not the kind that feels she needs to rush to his defense (he's a popular author with a widely read blog and twitter account, he's quite capable of speaking for himself).

I've really enjoyed reading your thoughtful comments on the original interview, and on Gaiman's response. For those who choose to really engage with the questions you raise rather than reacting with knee-jerk fan-wank, there is a great deal of food for thought in your writing, and I thank you for that.

Debbie Reese said...

Thank YOU, knitography, for your comments, but also for a new word (for me): fan-wank. I like it.

Trevor Scroggins said...

This may have been written before, but I do think it's important to consider the overall context of Neil's response. On the surface, it was an admittedly poor attempt at humor. Neil is an experienced writer of satire, however, and even the most flippant of Neil's comments serve to educate his audience. Taken as a stream of consciousness, Neil's response can be interpreted as a critique of the popular view of American history. (Human conciousness and the underlying nature of communication are far from understood, after all, despite the best efforts of philosphers, politicians, and funny book authors.) (Food for thought: "Funny book author," defusive or pejorative?)

Rather than guilt their perpetrators into uncomfortable and unncessary apologies, we should use such remarks to encourage positive and objective discussion. You and Neil both are fortunate and rich in the knowledge of your heritage, either by lineage or custom. Many of us lack such wealth. We are the product of the tumultuous joining of many cultures, and our graveyards are replete with the sanctimonious vestiages of our past.

Cryogaijin said...

Igloos (and wigwams and other snow-lodges) are another issue my GF takes issue with. Part of the "cultural image" of the eskimo/inuit people is that they live places where there isn't any "ground" aside from snow and ice. That couldn't be farther from the truth; while the ground is snow-covered for much of the year, we really don't get all that much snow. As such, it is common for a family unit to have a fixed "Village" and the only people who ever use "igloos" or "wigwams" would be the hunters. Or a couple fixed villages, depending on the time of year.

One thing that saddens me, as an outsider looking into the eskimo culture is how little credit they receive for their solutions to the harshness of living in their native environment. For example, much of the territory inhabited by the Inupiat is so perfectly flat that it poses problems even for experienced outdoorsmen.

Imagine having to hunt in such an environment. No trees to climb to get a vantage point, no hills, no ladders or stands due to lack of wood. How do you get a perspective higher than your ground-bound eyeballs?

The Inupiat's ingenious solution? Put one of the sharper eyed children on a blanket and toss 'em into the air. Simple, ingenious, and effective. . .

Sadly, it seems that many native Alaskans are stuck in what I refer to as a "Cultural Identity Crisis." This is manifested by the generational gap between children who generally don't speak their pure native language, and the adults who do, and generally speak heavily accented English. Culturally, things are being lost.

Anyhow, an interesting article for anyone wanting to read about an outsider's perspective on an isolated native villiage: While Savoonga is more isolated than most, the problems faced there are fairly typical of the more remote villages in Alaska.

Alex said...

Debbie: Astute spelling comment! Yes, I do live in England. My mother is British/Hungarian Jew and my father was an American- part Ojibwe, from Michigan. I'm what you might call a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. I will definitely carry on looking at your blog as there's understandably a lot less in the way of Native American resources in the UK. It's interesting to see the lack of cultural awareness from schools and such like, as there's such a huge presence from what is the equivalent- Celtic heritage, over here. Good luck in your work!