Wednesday, March 09, 2016

William Apess (Pequot) on Depictions of Native People in Stories

Over at Reading While White, Megan Schliesman's The Long Haul notes that we're in the year 2016, and that people have been objecting to problems in children's literature for a long time. She lists twelve people and invites readers to add to her list. I'm on that list, and so are Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin. My post, today, is my response to Megan's invitation.

For Native people who wrote about depictions of Native peoples in story, we can go all the way back to 1829 and William Apess.

William Apess was a Pequot activist and author. In the 1830s, he helped the Mashpee Wampanoags regain control of their lands. In 1829, his autobiographical Son of the Forest was published. Apess was mixed blood. His paternal grandfather was a white man who married a Pequot woman. His father married a Pequot woman. Apess and his siblings were born, and they all lived with their mother's family. At some point his parents split up and left, and the kids remained with their maternal grandparents. Through all this they were very poor and his grandmother was especially cruel.

He writes about how his grandmother was out drinking amongst white people. She returned home, intoxicated, and asked him if he hated her. He answered yes because he didn't realize that "yes" was the wrong answer. She beat him again and again, breaking his arm. He was four years old when that happened. His uncle took him away, to Mr. Furman, a white man who sometimes gave them milk. Apess was subsequently placed in Mr. Furman's home where he was well-cared for. It was a stark contrast to his life with his grandparents, but, in his autobiography, Apess takes care to tell readers that they ought not judge, without context, the causes of his grandmother's behaviors. He specifically mentions alcohol, wrongful taking of Native peoples possessions and land, "violence of the most revolting kid upon the persons of female portion of the tribe" (p. 15) -- which we are correct to interpret as rape.

When he was six, he went to school and embraced what he was taught, such that he became distant from his own identity as a Native person (p. 21): completely was I weaned from the interest and affections of my brethren that a mere threat of being sent away among the Indians into the dreary woods had a much better effect in making me obedient to the commands of my superiors than any corporal punishment that they ever inflicted. 
He recounts setting out with his family a couple of years later, to pick berries. While in the woods, they came upon a group of white girls who were also out picking berries, but their complexion, he wrote, was dark and made him think about Indians. Scared, he ran home. When he got there, Mr. Furman asked him what had happened. Writing about that incident as an adult, Apess wrote (p. 23):
It may be proper here to remark that the great fear I entertained of my brethren was occasioned by the many stories I had heard of their cruelty toward the whites--how they were in the habit of killing and scalping men, women, and children. But the whites did not tell me that they were in a great majority of instances the aggressors--that they had imbrued their hands in the lifeblood of my brethren, driven them from their once peaceful and happy homes--that they had introduced among them the fatal and exterminating diseases of civilized life. If the whites had told me how cruel they had been to the "poor Indian," I should have apprehended as much harm from them.
It is what Apess wrote there, in that paragraph, that matters to me in my work as a Native scholar who, 187 years later, is doing the same thing that Apess did in 1829. Through story, he learned  mistaken ideas about his own people such that he was afraid of them.

Obviously, misrepresenting who we are was wrong in 1829, and it is wrong now.

What J.K. Rowling did yesterday (March 8, 2016) in the first story of her "History of Magic in North America" is the most recent example of white people misrepresenting Native people. Her misrepresentations are harmful. And yet, countless people are cheering what Rowling did, and dismissing our objections. That, too, is not ok.

It is, as Megan wrote, a long haul. And in that long haul, people are being hurt by those who cry "it is only fiction." It isn't only fiction. Stories do work. They socialize. They educate. Or--I should say, they mis-educate. Do your part. Join us in pushing back on misrepresentation. It has been a long haul. Let's bring that to an end, together.


Jonathan Hendry said...

" Her misrepresentations are harmful."

How, *specifically*. Or do you simply object to all depictions of Native Americans in fiction on principle?

Jean Mendoza said...

Jonathan Hendry, you may be new to the blog. We invite you to keep following it, and to look back through the archives. That will help address your question about depictions of Native people in fiction. You'll see many books being appreciated for their 3-dimensional, complex, historically accurate, culturally appropriate representations of Native people, in addition to critiques of books that perpetuate stereotyping, misinformation, bias, and even bigotry. You'll also see some thoughtful ongoing conversations about those images.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to educate myself and thank you for these blogs. I wish you and maybe Debbie Reese would do workshops at SCBWI. Thanks again for discourse.

Lovelyisthevoice said...

"It isn't only fiction. Stories do work. They socialize. They educate."