Sunday, July 13, 2014

E.B. White "Did you ever see an Indian..."

A few days ago (June 11) was E.B. White's birthday. Most people know--and love--Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. 

Do you remember his reference to Indians in Stuart Little, published in 1973 by Harper Row?

It is that part where he's fixed up a birchbark canoe and plans to take Harriet out for a ride in it. There's a string tied to it, though, that he can't untie. He's really annoyed. Harriet says they could go anyway and let the string drag behind them. Stuart is not keen on that at all. On page 122, he says:
"Did you ever see an Indian paddling along some quiet unspoiled river with a great big piece of rope dragging astern?"
Harriet says that they could pretend they are fishing, but Stuart says
"I don't want to pretend I'm fishing."
What does he want to pretend? Does his "Indian paddling along some quiet unspoiled river" tell us he was imagining them as Indians?

Curious if he'd written anything else about Native peoples, I started digging a bit and found a poem called "An Indian Burial Mound" published in 1922 in Art and Archeology. It is as follows:
The sculpted buttes cut cameo-wise
Against the bold blue skies,
Above the grave.
No catafalque, no lordly marble tomb;
But,--in his native hill side carved,-a room
His bones to save.
The tomb profaned, simple would show his needs;
A shard or two, a strand of turquoise beads
The spirit crave.
Here ruled his tribe before we bade them go.
Here buffalo and deer paid tribute to his bow.
Here lies a brave!
Time for some analysis! That'll come. Later. Gotta run for now!


Back (on Monday, July 14th)!

Some things White says in the poem suggest he's thinking of the southwest ("sculpted buttes"), and the room carved in a hill suggest Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Here's a photo of those bold blue skies and what could be the buttes:


And here's a photo that shows the caves:


Bandelier, Mesa Verde, and similar sites are ancestral sites of Pueblo peoples. My village, Nambe, is about 30 miles from Bandelier. At one time, the information provided at the park said that the people who lived there disappeared, but now, the information states that Pueblo peoples lived in those sites and moved elsewhere (like Nambe).

If E.B. White visited Bandelier and didn't know the descendants of the people that lived there now live elsewhere, the lamentable tone of his poem makes sense. We could also say that his use of "Indian" rather than a specific tribal nation reflects a lack of knowledge, too.

His poem reflects romantic stereotypes but it also has the vanished Indian theme. In the conversation on Facebook, I noted that it reminds me of the "End of the Trail" statue at the Cowboy Hall of Fame. It depicts a tragic Indian.

Curious (again), I wondered if Trumpet of the Swan (another of his books for children) had any Native content... and it does! In it, Sam (the main character) has "black hair and dark eyes like an Indian" (p. 1). When he leaves the spot from which he watched the swans, he "walked slowly and quietly away, putting one foot in front of the other, Indian-fashion, hardly making a sound" (p. 22).

White did not denigrate Native peoples by using derogatory images, but romantic images are just as bad in terms of providing children with knowledge of who Native peoples were, and who we are, too.

And while most of us love White's writings for children, we ought not shy away from pointing out these stereotypes when we use the books with children. Letting them stand, unchallenged, is not educationally sound.


Beverly Slapin said...

It’s my understanding that making a birch bark canoe is a big deal; it’s labor intensive and you have to know what you’re dong. In making a traditional birch bark canoe, the outer surface of the outer bark (the white papery part) goes on the inside of the canoe, and the smooth inner side of the bark (the tough yellowish part) goes on the outside of the canoe. If the canoe were made as shown in the illustration, the canoe would not be watertight and would sink. Also, from this illustration, I don’t see any planking or ribbing on the inside, so the canoe would probably fall apart. Either way, Stuart Little would be a goner.

Anonymous said...

He's a mouse. I wouldn't criticize his canoe making skills.