March 20, 2010

Stereotypes in Sign of the Beaver

Here's an analysis written by Christine Rose of Students and Teachers Against Racism (STAR) and posted in Debbie Reese's blog:


A report on the effects of The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George SpeareBooks that are written by whites about Indians virtually always, even with the best of intentions, stereotype Indian people. Many writers will defend their writing by saying they have done considerable research, however, unless the writer has had extensive contact with the specific tribe they are writing about (and preferably that tribe has approved it) the opinions formed by the writer can only be done from their own cultural perspective, and often, bias.

In books that portray the past without historical accuracy and with disregard for the American Indian perspective of history, the ways of American Indians are often judged according to white standards of civilization rather than from a position of respect for the culture they are depicting. Since the non-American Indian perspective is often based on blaming the victim, it is easy to see how the young American Indian child might become angry at the manner in which their ancestors are portrayed. The fact that whites held themselves harmless while removing the Indians from their land, destroying their crops and fields, destroying their homes, disrupting their culture and frequently forcing the Indians to starve, as well as committing outright genocide, is a perspective that must be exposed in the classroom, not perpetuated.

In books such as The Sign of the Beaver, The Indian in the Cupboard, and The Little House on the Prairie, Indians are almost always portrayed speaking pidgin English, appearing lazy or foolish, and as being backward and un-evolved. This is seen from Chapter Three on, in The Sign of the Beaver we were able to highlight at least 36 pages out of 135 that contained some kind of anti-Indian reference such as stereotypes, cultural misrepresentations, and other offensive passages based on bias rather than truthful representation. For the sake of brevity we will only highlight some of the more offensive statements in the following paragraphs:

Chapter Eleven, page 52:

Or they would tramp along the creek to a good spot for fishing. Attean seemed to have plenty of time on his hands. Sometimes he would just hang around and watch Matt do chores. He would stand at the edge of the corn patch and look on while Matt pulled weeds.

"Squaw work," he commented once.

Matt flushed. "We think its man's work," he retorted.

Attean said nothing. He did not offer to help. After a time he wandered off without saying goodbye. It must be mighty pleasant, Matt thought to himself, to just hunt and fish all day and not have any work to do. That wasn't his father's way, and it wouldn't ever be his. The work was always waiting to be done, but if he got the corn patch cleared and the wood chopped today, he could go fishing with Attean tomorrow--if Attean invited him.

The implication that Matt has so much work to do and Attean does nothing but hunt and fish reflects the condescending attitude of settlers at the time. The Puritan ethic was that hard work kept the devil away. American Indian people certainly had their share of hard work in sustaining their lifestyles even in harsh weather. However, because the type of hard work American Indian people needed to perform in order to survive was not recognized as generating profit, by the settlers’ standards it was judged less important.

Early writings also show that the settlers were astonished at the hard work American Indian women did. However, what is virtually always left out of the conversation is that women worked hard because they were seen as equals to men in every way, which was not true of the status of European white women, who were often written about as possessions, who had little say in the home, in business, in politics or any other decision making process. In fact, Susan B. Anthony arrived at the idea of fighting for women's rights from the Oneida women with whom she spent considerable time. The opinions of American Indian women were valued and respected, and they were often the ones who retained rights to their home, possessions and children. All of that was unheard of by the settlers, who treated women and children as possessions. Therefore, the implication that "squaw's work" was demeaning was a white value, and does not accurately reflect the American Indian values at all.

Chapter Sixteen, page 81:

A lone Indian had leaped to the head of the line, beating a rattle against his palm in an odd stirring rhythm. He strutted and pranced in ridiculous contortions, for all the world like a clown in a village fair. The line of figures followed after him, aping him and stomping their feet in response.

The ridicule in this passage is hateful, mocking, demeaning and probably better describes the exaggerated antics of today’s abusive Indian sports team mascots rather than of a American Indian involved in a ceremonial dance. Can you imagine how an American Indian child feels about this when they are described in such disrespectful terms? Ridiculous contortions? Clown in a village fair? There is nothing in this that embraces American Indian culture.

But then:

Matt found it simple to follow the step. His confidence swelled as the rhythm throbbed through his body, loosening his tight muscles. He was filled with excitement and happiness. His own heels pounded against the hard ground. He was one of them.

In this remarkable passage, all demeaning, belittling, ridiculous images disappear. Suddenly, when Matt, perhaps because he is white, dances in the same fashion, he is empowered. This passage is incredibly distressing. There are many whites who try to follow American Indian culture, appropriate it, and then tell American Indian people they are not performing their culture properly. There are stories of team mascots dancing ridiculously and telling American Indian people to be honored if they see a white person mimicking their ways in inappropriate venues. There are whites who attempt to learn American Indian spirituality, then charge money for ceremonies. There are boy scouts that hold pow wows and tell American Indian attendees that they are dancing wrong. This passage rings with the very offensive suggestion that when Indians dance they are clowns. When the white boy dances, he is empowered. It is beyond condescending and well into imperialistic.
(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 4/11/07.)

Comment:  Read the whole essay for more examples of the book's stereotypes.

My only caveat is that the essay may generalize too much about hundreds of different Native cultures. But I'd say its conclusions are generally true.

For more on the subject, see The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence and The Best Indian Books.

Below:  One of those dancing clowns like in Sign of the Beaver.


Anonymous said...

I think its fair to just avoid books written by Whites when or if you decide to educate your children through books regarding American Indians. Approximately about 99% of the time, you will come across racist stereotyping and egregious exaggerations in books written by Whites on Natives.


dmarks said...

Books of George Catlin's work might be recommended "white" reading. Beyond that, I am not sure, not always knowing the race of authors/etc.