Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Notes: Native imagery in books that have won the Newbery Medal

Today, a colleague asked me if I knew of an article that looked at Native imagery in the Newbery Medal winners. I don't know of such an article and thought I'd just start making notes here. No analysis, yet. I'm using Google Books, Amazon's "look inside" feature, Project Gutenburg... whatever I can to compile these excerpts. The first medal was awarded in 1922. The first one that is about Native people of North America is Waterless Mountain, published in 1932.

1922: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon:

They had tried to use the Indians as labourers in the fields and in the mines, but the Indians, when taken away from a life in the open, had lain down and died and to save them from extinction a kind-hearted priest had suggested that negroes be brought from Africa to do the work.

1923: The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting:

"He is a mysterious person," said the Doctor--"a very mysterious person. His name is Long Arrow, the son of Golden Arrow. He is a Red Indian."
"Have you ever seen him?" I asked.
"No," said the Doctor, "I've never seen him. No white man has ever met him. I fancy Mr. Darwin doesn't even know that he exists. He lives almost entirely with the animals and with the different tribes of Indians--usually somewhere among the mountains of Peru. Never stays long in one place. Goes from tribe to tribe, like a sort of Indian tramp."

1924: The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes, p. 188:

Miles Philips was his name and the manner of his suffering at the hands of the Indians and the Spaniards may serve as a warning. For they flung him into prison where he was like to have starved; and they tortured him in the Inquisition where he was like to have perished miserably; and many of his companions they beat and killed or sent to the galleys; and himself and certain others they sold for slaves.

1925: Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles J. Finger
Note: It is a collection of 19 folktales of the native peoples of Central and South America. Can't see anything on line.

1926: Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1927: Smokey, the Cowhorse by Will James

All the stars was out and showing off, and the braves was a chasing the buffalo plum around the Big Dipper, the water hole of The Happy Hunting Grounds.

1928: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1930: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field, page 28:

They were sure the Indians had carried me away and I think this made Phoebe even more distressed about my loss.

1931: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1932: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer

Uncle told Father to ride to the trading post for help. At the post the Big Man was very busy trying to do something for everyone. A party of tourists was asking questions about every little thing. One wanted to know if the Indians still scalped people.
"I have never seen it done," said the Big Man as he went on addressing envelopes on his typewriter.
Note: the Big Man is a white trader. The Navajo father wants him to heal his son, who is sick, and calling out for the white trader.

1933: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1934: Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women, by Cornelia Miggs
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

That's it for now... More later.


Beverly Slapin said...

Thank you, Debbie. This is a valuable contribution (as is all of your work). Once you've finished compiling this material, it might be interesting to intersect what was being published with Indian history during these times.

Anonymous said...

I cannot get over that first one. And of course Dr. Dolittle. The first book was unbearably racist as well. I'm teaching it come spring.


April said...

I have read (and blogged) all the Newbery books (my blog covers up through up through 2011, but I have read on in the series.) Two to avoid on Native issues (this from my blog on Newbery books that have failed):

Daniel Boone, James Daughtery, 1940. This book lost me when I realized one of its themes was "the only good Injun is a dead Injun." Indians are vastly underrepresented in the Newbery list, but this was the worst depiction of all. I contrasted it with Waterless Mountain (1932, set in Navajo Nation in the late teens or early 1920s), which made a largely successful attempt at portraying a young Navajo boy navigating the modern world while remaining true to his spiritual values. Consider also Caddie Woodlawn (1936), The Matchlock Gun (1942), and Rifles for Watie (1957), all of which have Indians making cameo or supporting appearances. While the Indians portrayed in The Matchlock Gun are clearly the enemy, they are the enemy because they have sided with the French in the French and Indian War and are attacking the family in the story, and not because they are "bad" Indians. I cannot get past the clear bigotry in the work about Boone.


A book which I am reluctant to consign to this list but must talk about is Rifles for Watie, the 1957 winner by Harold Keith. Set during the Civil War in the states and territories west of the Mississippi, this book is exemplary for several reasons, not the least of which is its fairly searing depiction of the realities of war (death, hunger, privation). It stands apart because an underlying story is a love story between Jeff, a young Union soldier, and Lucy, a young woman whose family supports the Southern cause. Romances come and go in any literary genre, but this one is unique because Lucy is the youngest daughter of a Cherokee family living in Talequah, today's capitol of the Cherokee nation. She gets to deliver the clearest explanation of why her family(and indeed many Cherokees) supports the Confederacy when she gives Jeff a strongly worded history lesson about Andrew Jackson and his violation of Indian treaties that resulted in the destruction of the Cherokee's community in the east. Lucy does not say the word "genocide," but in her description of the numbers who died on the trail, it is the unspoken word that hangs in the air.

So why am I struggling with this choice? Because despite his clear-eyed recounting of Cherokee history, the author cannot resist having his characters draws distinctions between the "preferred" Indians (those who conduct their lives like whites) and the "frontier" Indians who have backslid into "shiftless" ways, abandoning the white culture and businesses for subsistence farming and hunting. The frontier Indians even discard the white man's clothing, and while Harold Keith does not describe their undesirable dress, I strongly suspect the women would be wearing the tear dress that is now the national dress of the Cherokee nation.

There is another reason too that I hold back on Rifles for Watie. Someday, I may have a grandchild whose family heritage is an elaborately stitched quilt of many backgrounds, including the strong dose of Ojibwa (Chippewa) he or she will inherit from my daughter-in-law Alise. I wouldn't want to have to begin to explain to my grandchild the inherent bigotry behind the depictions of the good (white) Indians and the lazy (native) Indians. I couldn't do it.

An update. I now do have a granddaughter--age 3, Little Shell Chippewa--and I use your column to help steer me. Thank you!