Monday, March 06, 2023

Debbie--have you seen SWIFT ARROW by Josephine Cunnington Edwards?

Some time back, a reader wrote to ask if I had read Swift Arrow by Josephine Cunnington Edwards. It was published in 1997 by a publisher I was unfamiliar with: "TEACH Services." On their website is a page about their history. A paragraph from there:
On January 1, 1984, a small home in Harrisville, New Hampshire, became the maiden office of TEACH Services, Inc. The mission of the newly formed publishing company was to encourage and strengthen individuals around the world through the distribution of books that point readers to Christ. 
I see, there, that the author was a missionary to Africa. And here's a description of the book: 
Colored leaves, red, yellow, and brown, fluttered past George as he rode behind Woonsak in the long string of Indians and ponies. They were riding north and moving quickly. So many Indians moved along the path that George, who rode near the front of the line, could not see the end when he turned around to look. The farther they went, the more unhappy George became. For with every step, Neko (his faithful pony) took him farther and farther from his home and from Ma and Pa. Even the fluttering leaves seemed like little hands waving good-bye all the day long. So begins chapter seven of this beloved classic by Josephine Cunnington Edwards. George, a young pioneer boy is captured by Indians and raised as the son of a mighty chief. He spends his time learning the ways of these native Americans, and yearning for the day that he might find a way to return to his loving family.

The TEACH website offers a preview of the book. That same preview is available in Google Books. Historical fiction often has biased and anti-Indigenous words, so I sometimes do a search (that's an option in Google Books) on a particular word to see how it is used in the book. In Swift Arrow, I found:

"squaw" -- 20 times
"squaws" -- 18 times
"paleface" -- 13 times
"brave" (as word for male) -- 12 times
"papoose" -- 11 times
"redskins" -- 4 times
"firewater" -- 3 times
"savages" -- 2 times 

I also looked for the word "dance" to see how it is used. Classic and award-winning books often include deeply offensive depictions of what they call Indian dance/dancing. In Swift Arrow, George watches "several warriors" jump into the middle of a circle and begin "a strange dance" where they leap into the air, and howl. Then, "several more braves" jumped into the circle. As George goes to sleep, he listens to the "howling" and thinks about this "savage life." You see that sort of description in Little House on the Prairie, and Sign of the Beaver, and Touching Spirit Bear. 

As the description above notes, George gets captured by Indians. When he arrives at the village, a few "squaws" pointed at him and "a few reached up dirty hands to touch his light face and run their fingers through his curly hair." There's a lot to say about that particular scene but I draw your attention to the word "dirty." It is also commonly used in historical fiction, as if being dirty is a way of life for Native people. It wasn't. 

As I look at reviews, etc., I see that their chief, "Big Wolf" plans to make George--who is now called Swift Arrow--his son and future chief of the tribe. That sort of thing is seen in many works of historical fiction. An authority figure (in this case "Big Wolf") is choosing a white captive for a significant role in the tribe. Those storylines are examples of white supremacy. Knowing that the author was a missionary, it does not surprise me that she created that particular plot. 

If I decide to order the book I'll be back with a more in-depth review but right now, I am confident in saying that I would not recommend it. I wish this book was an outlier but I think the questions I've received about it point to it being used more and more within politically conservative spaces. 

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