Thursday, May 07, 2015

Indian-as-spirit in SMEK FOR PRESIDENT by Adam Rex

Earlier this year, I did an analysis of the Native content in Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday. I found the ways that Rex used Native characters and history to be troubling. Some see his parallels to colonization of Natives peoples as having great merit, but the story he tells has a happy ending. The colonizers (aliens called Gorgs from another solar system) do not succeed in their occupation of Earth. They are driven away.

Some people also think Rex cleverly addressed stereotypes in the way that he developed "the Chief" in that story, but I disagree, especially given many things he raised and did not address, like the drunken Indian stereotype.

And some people think that we can overlook all the problems with Native content because there are so few books with biracial protagonists. I disagree with that, too. Why throw one marginalized group under the bus for the sake of another?! That seems twisted and perverse to me.

One of the what-not-to-do cautions in the creation of characters of marginalized populations is "do not kill that character." In The True Meaning of Smekday, Rex killed "the Chief."

In Smek for President, Rex commits another what-not-to-do: use a Native character as a spiritual guide. That character? "The Chief." He died in the first book.

Smek for President opens with a series of cartoon panels that tell us what happened in The True Meaning of Smekday. Amongst the panels are these two. In the first one, we're reminded about "this guy everyone called Chief Shouting Bear."

Back in The True Meaning of Smekday, we learned that his name is actually Frank, but Tip (the protagonist in both books) just calls him "the Chief." She likes him--there's no doubt about that--but persists in using the dehumanizing "the Chief" throughout the book.

In the first book, Tip had a run-in with a Gorg. That run-in is depicted in the next panel in Smek for President:

See "the Chief" in the top panel, approaching that Gorg and Tip? He told that Gorg to leave Tip alone. As you see, the Gorg punched "the Chief" (accident is not the right word for what happened!), knocking him out. Tip and J.Lo (he's a Boov) took him to an apartment to get help. That's when Vicky (another character) asks if he'd been drinking.

Towards the end of The True Meaning of Smekday, "the Chief" dies.

But he appears again and again in Smek for President... 

On page 25, Tip and J.Lo are in their spaceship, flying to New Boovworld and looking out the window at Saturn. Tip thinks back to the time that "the Chief" took her and J.Lo to look at Saturn through a telescope. Here's that part (p. 25-26):
"My people called it Seetin," said the Chief. "Until the white man stole it from us and renamed it."
I turned away from the eyepiece and frowned at the Chief. "Until... what? How can that be true?"
The Chief was smirking. "It isn't. I'm just messing with you."
And now, as we skimmed over the planet's icy rings, I said to J.Lo, "I wish the Chief could have seen this."
He'd died over a year ago, at the age of ninety-four--just a few months after the Boov had left Earth.
That passage is another good example of the author taking one step forward and then two steps backward. By that, I mean that it is good to bring up the idea that Native lands were stolen and renamed, but the "just messing with you" (the humor) kind of nullifies the idea being raised at all. It may even cause readers to wonder what part of "the Chief's" remarks is not true. That his people had a different name for Saturn? That white people didn't really steal Indians?

Tip and J.Lo land their spaceship on New Boovworld. On page 74, Tip is inside an office. She hides by climbing into a chute that drops her in a garbage pit:
Back when the Chief was alive, he and I had all kinds of long talks. Arguments, sometimes. So I don't want you to think I'm schizophrenic or anything, but I occasionally imagine the Chief and I are having one of those talks when I need a little company. And I needed a little company.
"Hey, Stupidlegs," said the Chief.
"Hey, Chief," I answered, smiling. And I opened my eyes. He was to my left, standing lightly on the surface of the trash.

I know people will think it is nice that Tip would imagine an Indian person as the one she'd turn to when she's in need of company, but it is like that far too often!

People love Indian mascots. Indians were so brave, so courageous! Never mind that the mascot itself is a stereotype---we real Native people are told we should feel honored by mascots!

People love Indian spirits, too. Remember "Ghost Hawk" -- the character Susan Cooper created? He started out as Little Hawk but gets killed part way through the story. He stays in the story, however, as a ghost or spirit that teaches the white protagonist all kinds of things.

People love Indians that remind them of days long past, when the land was pristine. Remember Brother Eagle Sister Sky by Susan Jeffers? A white family laments deforestation and plants trees. Throughout the book, there are ghost-like Indians here and there.

People love scary Indian ghosts, too. All those stories where a house is built on an old Indian burial ground! Those angry Indian spirits do all kinds of bad things. Earlier this year I read a Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew story where Nancy was sure an angry Indian spirit was up to no good. And how about that angry Indian in the Thanksgiving episode of Buffy the Vampire Killer?

My point is that this trope is tiresome. If you see a review that notes this problematic aspect of Smek for President, do let me know!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Tip is quite clear that the Chief is NOT a spirit of any kind. She clearly says he is "a figment of my imagination." That does NOT make him a spirit guide but merely someone she loved who is now gone. She knows he is gone but she misses him, so she still talks to him. And yes, he was killed off but he died from old age, which makes sense since he was 94 in the first book.