Saturday, February 14, 2015

Stereotypes in Wilder's THE LONG WINTER

Earlier today, I saw a post on Facebook in which a person said, of Wilder's The Long Winter, "this is the only book that can put what's happening in Boston in perspective. It could be worse, wicked worse."

The woman who wrote that post must think she's being clever, comparing the blizzard in Boston to the one in The Long Winter. 

If you care about accuracy in how Native peoples are depicted, or if you care about how derogatory depictions of Native people impact the growing minds of Native and non-Native children, then I think we'd agree that it is long past time to set aside that series.

Because of their status and 
place of nostalgia in the minds 
of so many Americans, 
few books for children are as wicked 
as those in the Little House on the Prairie series.


Ah---you say, 'there were Indians in The Long Winter?'

Yes. The chapter called "Indian Warning" has a "very old Indian" in it. Here's from page 61:
"Heap big snow come," this Indian said.
As he gestures, the blanket he is wearing slides off his shoulder and his "naked brown arm" came out. He continues:
"Heap big snow, big wind," he said.
Pa asks him how long, and of course he says "Many moons" and holds up four, and then three fingers that mean seven months of blizzards.
"You white men," he said. "I tell-um you."
On page 186, the wind grows louder and louder. It reminds Laura of the "Indian war whoops" when Indians were doing "war dances" by the Verdigris River when she was younger.

See what I mean? Stereotypes. Set it aside.

Update, Feb 17, 2015:

Anonymous submitted a comment indicating I was engaging in ageism by focusing on the "old Indian." My point in quoting those words is not about age. My point is that he is nameless and tribeless, and speaks using "many moons" and "heap big" and "tell-um" --- all of which are examples of speech patterns non-Native people attribute to Native people. You see those phrases a lot, regardless of location and, often, time period. As a literary device, it works for those who don't know better or who haven't paused to think about the sheer diversity that existed/exists across the Native peoples of this continent.


Update, Feb 18, 2015:

Notes on Indian-hating-Ma didn't make it into the initial post, so I'm adding them here.

On page 64, Pa is talking about how he feels the need to hurry to get their house ready for winter, especially given the information he got from "that Indian...":
He stopped.
"What Indian?" Ma asked him. She looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian whenever she said the word. Ma despised Indians. She was afraid of them, too.
"There's some good Indians," Pa always insisted. Now he added, "And they know some things that we don't. I'll tell you all about it at supper, Caroline."
Debbie's comments: Elsewhere, I've written about the effect of those words on a 3rd or 4th grade Native child (the age at which the books are read or read aloud in class). Imagine the sneer on Ma's face. Imagine the face of that Native child. Imagine the face of the non-Native child, just taking in that hate. As for good Indians, who might they be, in this particular story? The one who helped Pa. Just like in Little House on the Prairie. The bad ones there were the ones who were gathering and didn't want the Ingalls family on land that was meant for Native people. My guess? Pa and Ma would say that bad Indians in The Long Winter are those who object to having their lands declared surplus by the federal government and then sold to family's like the Ingalls family. 

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ugh. Terrible stereotypes and very dated language.

But I do caution you about ageism. If the person was old, what is so wrong about that depiction? An experienced man with many years of knowledge about the weather should be celebrated, not included as a stereotype. In your email sharing this you reference the "old Indian" as problematic. There is nothing wrong with being aged.

Debbie Reese said...

I should have said more, Anonymous, in my quote of "old Indian."

Here's what my email said (putting it in italics to distinguish it from the rest of this comment):

"The blizzards many people are experiencing have prompted people to revisit/remember Wilder's THE LONG WINTER.

It is being referenced in blog posts and news stories.

If teachers in your schools are using it, I hope you'll consider pointing out the stereotypical depiction of the "old Indian" who says "heap big snow
come."


The age of the Indian is not the point. The point is--and I am adding this to the post itself--he is nameless and tribeless. My concern has nothing at all to do with ageism, but I appreciate your comment because it tells me I need to say more.



mamasaurusroars said...

Ms. Reese,
I applaud your pointing out the language in the Long Winter and for pointing out the way Native Peoples are portrayed in literature. By reducing Native People's contributions to weather forecasting in broken English, drunkendness and gambling away their lands, Americans won't have to deal with the very real problems of disease, unemployment and abject poverty that is very real in Native American peoples' experiences today. Most Americans do not realize that Native Peoples are the only minorities that are forced to prove their heritage in order to be classified as minorities. My husband had a Native granmother somewhere in his not too distant geneology, but it is impossible to prove due to the stigmas and shoddy record keeping that existed in the early 1900's. My children have been exposed to native cultures' music and storytelling from a very young age in the hopes that they will seek out their truth. Thank you for your piece! I will be sure to show it to my children! <3

mamasaurusroars said...

Ms. Reese,
I applaud your pointing out the language in the Long Winter and for pointing out the way Native Peoples are portrayed in literature. By reducing Native People's contributions to weather forecasting in broken English, drunkendness and gambling away their lands, Americans won't have to deal with the very real problems of disease, unemployment and abject poverty that is very real in Native American peoples' experiences today. Most Americans do not realize that Native Peoples are the only minorities that are forced to prove their heritage in order to be classified as minorities. My husband had a Native granmother somewhere in his not too distant geneology, but it is impossible to prove due to the stigmas and shoddy record keeping that existed in the early 1900's. My children have been exposed to native cultures' music and storytelling from a very young age in the hopes that they will seek out their truth. Thank you for your piece! I will be sure to show it to my children! <3

Anonymous said...

To be fair, the people on the Verdigris River were actually thinking about killing them. I'd be scared of their songs, too, and I might call such a thing a 'war whoop' if it was all those years ago and I had no one to tell me better.