Friday, November 18, 2011

"Indian Children" by Annette Wynne

Today's post is prompted by a comment submitted to me by Brendan, a regular reader of AICL. The comment was submitted via the "Contact AICL" button in the tool bar above.

In 1919, Annette Wynne's For Days and Days: A Year Round Treasury of Child Verse was published. In it is a poem that is easily found today. That poem is "Indian Children." You can find it, as Brendan did, on teacher lesson plan sites. When I started looking around, I saw that you can also find Youtube videos of children reciting it.

The poem tells us that American Indians no longer exist. You could read the poem as a lament, or you could read it as a celebration. Either way, it doesn't matter. The bottom line for Wynne, and, I suspect, for teachers who use it today, is that we are no longer here. We are, of course, alive and well.

Here it is:
Indian Children
by Annette Wynne

Where we walk to school each day
Indian children used to play-
All about our native land,
Where the shops and houses stand.

Note "we" in the first line and "our" in the third line. Neither word includes Native children. Both refer to white children and their families who now claim the land. What does a teacher tell her students about where those Indian children went? And, what does she tell them about how that land became theirs?

And the trees were very tall,
And there were no streets at all,
Not a church and not a steeple-
Only woods and Indian people.

References to religious structures and houses and shops, but not banks. Or saloons...  A pristine, but incomplete image.

Only wigwams on the ground,
And at night bears prowling round-
What a different place today
Where we live and work and play!

If read as a lament, there is sadness that there are no longer wigwams and bears. No mention, in that stanza, of the children mentioned in the first stanza. If read as a celebration, there is gladness that there are no longer wigwams and bears.

A troubling poem, no matter how you slice it. Do you know someone who uses it? Do you know how and why it is used?

Another thought: The title doesn't fit the poem! It isn't about Indian children. Can you suggest a new title for it?


anahuy said... bout b.s.

Debra said...

As a child I had to memorize it for school and have loved it since. So with those child's eyes I saw a world that existed not just prior to me being born but that adventure it would have been to be a part of it. A world where forests covered much more then they do now. A child's eyes do not always see some staunch dark portrait that adults might. I think that this is largely true of this poem. It is, I think, a portrait without the finger pointing good or bad.

Rose said...

When I was a little girl about 52 years ago,my Italian (from Italy) grandmother would put me on her lap and sing ce.sera ce sera and also recite that poem to me....It always stayed on my mind as a good feeling about my grandma spending time with me.......I feel so sad,I never really thought about the words,I really didn't remember the words until i just looked it up....I never thought about my grandma as racist.I guess,i will just remember her singing to me....

Anonymous said...

I remember singing this poem in music class as an elementary student. I also enjoyed this song and still remember the words. I do not see this as not having Native American children or people around. I understand it as originally the land was occupied and owned
by Native Americans exclusively ,with their cultures, but now it has changed. I'm so dishearted by people having a negative connotation with everything that has been said or written. Please have an open mind.

Anonymous said...

I am 71 years hummm young and I learned this poem when I was in Grade 1 or 2. It has always left an impact on me and I could back then picture how the landscape was before Toronto, (where I lived) became a city. I love this poem.

marjorie said...

I was born in 1954, and clearly remember learning this poem as a young child in Ontario, Canada. We didn't just recite it though. We sang it and I can still remember the tune perfectly.

George Nixon Shuler said...

Thank you for posting this. As a token 62½ year old fat white guy, I had never heard of it until my wife recited it to me when we were engaged. She is something like 33 percent Cherokee and Choctaw more or less (not enrolled) and was well aware of her Native American heritage on both sides, but apparently some of her siblings never told their own children they were (16.5%?). I told a nephew and he said "I never heard that before." In part due to racism of the day people often tended to hide Native American roots. As to whether the poem is a celebration or a lament I would have to say both. Yes, it certainly conveys white-is-right ethnocentrism by the author, however ignorant she was of this continent's original settlers and the suggestion such "Indian children" are no longer around has to be kind of like my late Great-grandmother's and Great Aunts' expressive but mostly gentle Southern racism (if you've read or seen "The Help" you know just what I mean). To my wife, knowing her own heritage I would have to say it resonated with her because she knew of her family's ancestry and found it positive. As exurban residents of towns, we all recall, or think we can, how life was in the past, and the "Indian Children" of the title are simply the Hitchcockian "MacGuffin" to tell the story. Thanks for providing some excellent food for thought. I'm going to cite you when addressing multiculturalism from now on!

Sheila Beers said...

I too learned this poem as a child in the 1950s in Indiana, which means "land of Indians." Several years ago I gave a copy of the poem to a local historian who specialized in the Native American civilization in our part of North America, and he included it on the title page of his book. I do not think the message is negative. In fact, I think it speaks to the common heritage of all people who have lived in North America, whether Native Americans or white settlers. The poem also speaks of the change various civilizations have brought about in one geographical location.

Nancy Reaume said...

I also learned this as a child, living in Ontario, Canada and it always made me something was lost. My father told me that we have native heritage in our family but it's a few generations back. There are members of my family who were very upset with me when I asked questions and said it was not true. I have also had many people tell me they can see it to a degree in my features and especially in baby pics. I will take the word of my father. I have thought of this poem many times over the years and again today so I come searching for it to read to my husband. The poem still makes me sad but I want to share it.

Anonymous said...

I was the only black girl in a class of about twenty. It was 1960 and racism was the norm. I just assumed that I was at the bottom of the social ladder. I was Ok with that. I didn't know any better. One day two American Imdian kids came to my class. There was no changing rooms in those days. Except for the occosainal trip to the gym. But I will never forget these two frightened children. They both shared a desk and would often cling desperately to each other. They were never introduced to the class and the nun never addressed or called their name. No one spoke or played with them. I would like to say that I took the higher ground. Instead I was actually and silently relieved that someone in the class was even lower, socially, than me. How could I know this ar the tender age of 7? It felt good to now longer be the lowest of the low. All of my life I wondered what happened to the Indian children who came to St. Joseph School in Milwaukee WI in 1960. I would want to apologize and say they were innocent frightened children who should have been embraced- by me especially. They only lasted a month. One long and painful month- if that long.
The poem Indian Children, I memorized when I was 7. This poem was wrong to me on so many levels. We watched Cowboys and Indian movies. Sadly the Indians always lost. I was pained by this poem. Anger, silent screams! Denorah

Jean Mendoza said...

Denorah, your experience, though it occurred many years ago, shows so clearly and painfully the multi-layered effects of bigotry on children -- including the effects of having to memorize something that doesn't feel right, and to watch someone be harmed because of "who they are", as the child you were was harmed. And it shows how deeply racism has been embedded in the (mis)education process, forever. I found myself hoping that some adult had spoken kindly or respectfully to those two Native kids -- and to you -- but they did not. And instead of books that reflected your humanity, or that of those Native children, you were given That Poem to commit to memory. As your story shows, bigotry isn't always loud; sometimes it hides in the silences. And induces silent screams.

Unknown said...


zybo2 said...

I am 52. I learned this poem when I was in elementary school as part of local history. I never considered the poem racist or about genocide. I thought of it as a description of how differently people lived. The line "and the trees were very tall" does seem to lament the destruction of the environment more than the death and displacement of Native Americans, but as a child ( who had yet to learn those lessons), the poem made me think about how cool it would have been to live with tall trees. I guess because one of my classmates was part Native American as was my 4th grade teacher, I didn't see it as much about the death of Indian children, but rather the end of living that way