Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Dear Parents of LADYBUG GIRL

Dear Parents of Ladybug Girl (Jacky Davis and David Soman),

This is a heads-up from the mom and aunt of Pueblo Indian children. What's up with that "Indian" costume your daughter wears?

Part of me wants to yell at you.

Part of me wants to yell at your editors at Viking.

Part of me says "they don't mean any harm, they don't know it is inappropriate."

But you know what?

Your intent doesn't really matter to me.

I'm thinking about Native children who will pick up that best selling book and see their spirituality and identity turned into a playtime costume.

So here's what you should do.

Get rid of it.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature


Amy Oberts said...

I'm curious what the initial letter stated from the parents' perspective...?

Anonymous said...

I would love to hear more about why children would find it offensive to see a child dressed in this costume. Is it that they would feel it belittles their culture? I am Native Hawaiian and would not, for example, be concerned if Ladybug Girl were dressed in a hula costume (although grass skirts are not authentic, people!). Is it that it's just one more drop in the bucket of insensitive images? Just trying to understand.

Christine said...

Dear Anonymous,
The problem is that the child is wearing clothing that has specific ritual and religious importance to Native Americans.

As an outsider (I am "white," "Caucasian", "of European ancestry") I don't need to understand the religious significance of the clothing. I hear that it is offensive and that is understanding enough for me.

The costume box in my house growing up had "gypsy," "Chinaman," and "cigarette girl" costumes. I wouldn't dream of dressing up my child as any of those things. (I would not put my child in a grass skirt either-dinosaurs, power rangers, ninja turtles and the occasional princess was fine for my girls.)

Times is not about political correctness, it is about empathy and understanding.

Anonymous said...

Clearly it is a suit vest, likely from her father's closet, which she is using to pretend. Do you think perhaps that you may be over-reacting?

Carol said...

Like Christine, I'm an outsider to this culture. It is offensive to Debbie and someone who brought it to her attention.

@ Anonymous, April 12: Didn't you notice the girl is wearing a feathered headdress? I think that's the issue.

Carol Valdez said...

@ Anonymous, April 12: and clearly she is also wearing a feathered headdress.

@ Christine: ditto for me.

Anonymous said...

She doesn't say what she specifically objects to about the costume. She only says "the 'Indian' costume your daughter wears." If it is only the headress she objects to, she should say so. However, my point still stands. The little girl is making costumes for her "pretend" play with what she can find. This is common child's play. And those headdresses are sold, authentic or not, from many stores and mail-order houses, and people buy them. I think people should learn about different cultures, but I also think that people should not throw a fit over harmless child's play.

Carol Valdez said...

And people used to dress in blackface. I think the main point here is to bring this to our attention so that the ignorance changes. Ignorance just means one is not aware. Debbie is telling us it's not harmless child's play in the pov of those in her culture. You're missing the point when you parse the fine point of saying she didn't say what part of the costume was objectionable. As Christine said, it's enough to hear that it's offensive.

Carol Valdez said...

@ Anonymous, April 12: Debbie, correct me if I'm wrong but I think you're missing her point, Anonymous. It’s not that the little girl (or really, the adult author projecting through the girl) doesn’t have authentic things to dress up in – it’s that one of the dress-up items, authentic or not, is sacred to another culture, and she shouldn't be dressing up in it. You didn’t know, I didn’t know, the author didn't know, but Debbie does. Perhaps you and I don't have things that offend us because we're so accustomed to a different worldview and that's partly why a defensiveness kicks in.

Carol Valdez said...

"Little Black Sambo" used to be acceptable, even recommended, but Langston Hughes noted in 1932 that it was a typical "pickaninny" book which was hurtful to black children.

Carol Valdez said...

Check out this site:
"The Picaninny Caricature" page; the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, sponsored by Ferris State University.

I would copy and paste a quote but this function is disabled by the website. Midway down the page, find the section "Characteristics of Picaninnies."

This observation especially struck me as similar to the little girl clad only in a long vest and headdress: the author talks about how the picaninny caricature shows Black children as poorly dressed or nearly nude, which implies that Black parents neglect their children because a loving parent would provide clothing. The author continued to say that it also suggests that Blacks are less civilized than Whites (who wear clothes)."

It seems to me that you should step back and dispassionately consider Debbie's points before reacting. The tiniest bit of research I just did helps reinforce other historical instances of the same kind of thing she's still seeing today. She's acting on behalf of her culture and the children in the same way that Langston Hughes did.

Read her "About AICL" section in which she explains her background and her goals. It would make you more empathetic to her p.o.v.

Carol Valdez said...

I will concede one point, Anonymous: I think it would be helpful to explain exactly what's objectionable about the image so that those who are ignorant *will* understand and will know what to be sensitive to. It could be the scanty vest, it could be the headdress and its sacred significance...

Carol Valdez said...

"Becky Wyatt, a teacher at Kettering Elementary School in Long Beach, decided to alter the costumes for the annual Thanksgiving play a few years ago after local Indians spoke out against pupils wearing feathers, which are sacred in their culture. Now, children wear simple headbands."

Source: Accessed 13 April, 2012.

Anonymous said...

It's me again, Anonymous from April 12. I am 1/16th Cherokee, and it does not offend me that children like to play dress-up as Native Americans. The headdress to which you refer is one of millions that have been made and sold, some authentic, some not, just so children can play dress-up. People buy these headdresses for their children. I do not see why this would offend anyone. However, judging from some of the comments posted, the feathers and headdress are evidently "sacred" to some Native Americans. If I were walking through the woods and came upon an eagle feather lying on the ground, I should have the right to pick it up and do with it as I please, because to me it is a feather that fell off a bird. For a group of people to tell me that I cannot display it in my home, or let my granchildren play with it is just as wrong as the people who issues fatwas against someone who draws a picture of Mohammad. People have a right to their own religious beliefs, which should be only for their own comfort and guidance, but they should never impose those beliefs onto others. This is what really upsets me. There you have it. I am an irreligious agnostic. And I resent anyone who tries to restrict the free exercise of my rights just because it offends their personal religious sensibilities.

Debbie Reese said...


I'm not sure what you're asking. Can you say more?

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous on Wed Apr 11 at 9:11 AM,

Christine's response says what I would have said. Her last line is especially important. Times change!

Debbie Reese said...

Thank you, Carol, for your thoughtful responses and sharing of resources.

Debbie Reese said...

American Indian dance is not performance or entertainment. It is prayer.

Donning a headdress and anything that allows a child to "play Indian" is protected by free speech. That same protection would allow you to dress up like the Pope and play at blessing people, speaking in Latin, etc. You could do it, but you would probably choose not to do so.

In addition to that, just what "Indian" is a child playing at? Do you (the parent) know? There are over 500 federally recognized tribe, and there are differences in clothing, tradition, etc. from one to the next. What is a child "learning" when "playing Indian" in a stereotypical way?

Carol Valdez said...

@ Anonymous: it's the Pueblo Indian tribe that uses the feathered headdress, not the Cherokee. It doesn't matter to you, but it matters a great deal to someone and I think it has at least a little bit to do with having closer ties to one's Native ancestry than 1/16th. It certainly has been great food for thought, at least. I respect you, Anonymous, because you're presenting your opinions and it helps us to think through our positions. It's valuable feedback. Sincerely, Carol

Anonymous said...

Anonymous from April 12/17 - I strongly suggest you read the post "But why can't I wear a hipster headdress?" from the blog Native Appropriations, as well as reading a lot more from Debbie's blog. Hopefully it will give you some understanding of the points you are questioning.

Debbie Reese said...

A quick point of clarification:

Some Pueblo Indian tribes (Nambe is one) use feathered headdresses for the Comanche dance, but the headdress is more typical of regalia of Plains tribes.

Unknown said...

"Donning a headdress and anything that allows a child to `play Indian' is protected by free speech."

I'm not quite sure what you're getting at here, but, if you are referring to the legal regime in the U.S., no, you're incorrect. The U.S.'s constitutional guarantee to freedom of speech has no role to play in whether or not I'm allowed to have my child "play Indian."

"In addition to that, just what `Indian' is a child playing at? Do you (the parent) know? There are over 500 federally recognized tribe, and there are differences in clothing, tradition, etc. from one to the next. What is a child `learning' when `playing Indian' in a stereotypical way?"

Well, I doubt they are learning anything meaningful about Indian culture, one way or the other, irrespective of the authenticity of the garb or activity. And I can scarcely imagine why you or I or anyone else would - or should - worry much about it. Expecting anyone, even Indians, to be conversant to any appreciable degree in such distinctions strikes me as more than a little self-absorbed. Are you, by the way, familiar with the many thousands of variations of clothing, traditions, etc. that exist throughout the world in the many more cultures other than Indian that exist, in varying degrees of current ascendancy? Of course you're not, nor should you be (except to the extent that such knowledge has value to you given your personal predilections). And so I doubt - unless you live in a state of paralysis - you can confidently assert that you never engage in any activity which may run afoul of something deemed central, sacred, or just really, really important to one or more of those cultures. It is, of course, good to be considerate of others, but there are limits to that and no one has an obligation to withhold from any and all activity that someone somewhere claims offends them. Intent matters (a lot) here and you seem not to appreciate that.

I am American, of some sort of European descent, married to a Vietnamese woman who immigrated here as an adult. My city is overwhelmingly Asian, probably most of that Vietnamese ("my people" are distinctly in the minority, constituting probably 10% or less of our city), and so I have spent a lot of time immersed in Vietnamese culture and community. One of the things that I like a lot about Vietnamese people is that they are generally not susceptible to being offended easily. Though I gather from what you say that you probably don't think so, what I find is that this leads much more readily to genuine interaction and understanding between people who have grown up in rather different ways. It's not that anything goes, but I do believe that if the goal is for people to really appreciate the reality that their commonality is far greater than their diversity, we'd all do well to lighten up a bit, attempt to be less parochial, and make an effort to understand the intent behind others actions and not just how we receive them.