Friday, October 08, 2010

Neil Gaiman on "a few dead Indians"

In April of 2010, I happened across an interview Neil Gaiman gave, in which he said he didn't use an American graveyard for The Graveyard Book because an American graveyard would only have "a few dead Indians" in it.  (Note: Before you rush down to comment on what I say here in this post, please read this entire post, the original post "What Neil Gaiman said" and the second one "Following up on What Neil Gaiman Said.")

I wrote about the remark on April 18 in "What Neil Gaiman said" and Pam Noles Kynn wrote on her LiveJournal about what I wrote. Suddenly, words were flying about the internet, saying I and/or Pam Noles had called Gaiman racist. 

His fans, angry at me and Pam Kynn, began inundating American Indians in Children's Literature with comments in his defense.

Meanwhile, he smoothed things over with Pam Noles Kynn and told me he would write something more about it on his blog when he found some time to do so, which was yesterday (October 8). At his blog, he wrote:
Over at Debbie Reese correctly called me out earlier this year on something particularly stupid and offensive I said last year when I was asked at ABA about why I hadn't set The Graveyard Book in the US. I think I mostly was trying to answer with my Author Head rather than my Being Interviewed Head -- trying to describe how I perceived my potential cast of characters in a European Style graveyard in a small US city (like the UK one in The Graveyard Book). I remember thinking at the time that it was a remarkably stupid thing to have said, but stupid things come out of your mouth when you're being interviewed, and you press on.

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 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.) And you don't use a phrase like "dead Indians" without summoning, wittingly or unwittingly, the shadow of the phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian".

People have asked how I would have felt about the phrase "a few dead Jews" in the same place in the interview, which made me feel additionally guilty, as one of the things I missed about The Graveyard Book was that I didn't actually put any Jews in my graveyard. I wanted to, but couldn't make the history and the burial customs work.

Probably I should write a Graveyard Book story with some secretly buried Jews in it, and some dead Native Americans a very long way from home.

Anyway, apologies to all concerned, particularly to Debbie Reese.

People are glad that he finally wrote about his remarks in that interview. I am, too, but I wasn't after an apology. I did want him to address the ease with which such a remark could be made and that the remark would go unchallenged for months and months (the interview took place in October of 2008; I came across it in April of 2010).

To his credit, Gaiman did reference "the only good Indian" phrase, but his source has its own set of problems. If you clicked on the link, you were taken to an entry at Trivia There, you read that the phrase originates with General Sheridan, but that information is incorrect. More reliable than Trivia is a 1993 article by Wolfgang Mieder. Titled "'The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian'": History and Meaning of a Proverbial Stereotype" Mieder's article was published in the Journal of American Folklore. (Send me an email request and I'll send you a copy.) Mieder carefully traces the phrase and its use. I cite Mieder's findings in a chapter I wrote about its use in Little House on the Prairie. The phrase, by the way, was not in common use during the time Laura Ingalls and her family were in Indian Territory.

Just prior to the apology line, Gaiman says that he should write a Graveyard Book story with some dead Native Americans that are far from home. He could, in fact, because many Native peoples ended up in England. Some by force (Squanto) and some by choice (Pocahontas) and Native people who toured the world as cast members in Wild West Shows. Some died there (Squanto made it back; Pocahontas did not).  If you're interested in a novel about a Native man in the Wild West Shows, read The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch. It isn't meant for children, but could be used in high school English classes. There's an interview with Welch here.
Once this post is uploaded, I'll tweet the link. It may or may not bring closure to this particular episode, but I do hope that Gaiman's readers, friends, colleagues, and editors (as well as anyone else who followed this episode) come away with a more thoughtful reflection on the ways that we speak---intentionally and not---about American Indians.

Final comment added at 3:24 after initial upload:

Thanks, Neil, for being willing to reflect on the interview and your response to my initial post about it. And, a heartfelt thanks for acknowledging your reaction and emotion, and, your understanding of a perspective that is not your own. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Garth Nix and his thinking about to/not to write about indigenous peoples. That sort of public reflection from him and you has great potential to move the literature itself forward to a place that respects American Indian and indigenous peoples worldwide, and our concerns.

Update: October 9, 2010, 7:11 PM

I read ithiliana's entry at her LiveJournal and see that I've made an error above. I confused Pam Noles and Kynn.  On realizing the error, I crossed out Pam Noles above and inserted Kynn.  I'm also working on a stand-alone post about ithiliana's analysis.

Update: October 10, 2010, 10:55 AM

I've followed up with another blog post, "Part II --- Neil Gaiman on "a few dead Indians" because I was holding back yesterday, unsure of how to say all that I wanted to say. ithiliana's analysis (noted in my first update above) helped me get my thoughts together.