February 07, 2007

Toys tell the tale

Western toys round up new fansStereotypes and prejudice were once the rule rather than the exception in children's toy boxes.

American Indians wore fringed leather loincloths, carried tomahawks and slept in tepees, no matter where they lived. All American cowboys strapped on gun holsters, hated American Indians and had white faces. And unless your name was Calamity Jane, your life as a woman in the Old West was doomed to stirring a big iron kettle over a campfire.
Did toymakers originate these stereotypical images? Did the images bubble up from the collective unconscious? No:Toy makers took their cues from dime novels, radio, television and film. Kids played "Rifleman" board games, wore Marshal Matt Dillon badges and Lone Ranger masks and banged on tom-toms, decorated in nonsensical "wild Indian" graphics.So for perhaps the hundredth time, stereotypes come primarily from the media. No surprise there to anyone who's studied the issue.

But things are changing in the toy business: At the 2007 American International Toy Fair in New York City Sunday through Wednesday, Feb. 14, new Western-theme toys are expected to draw some serious attention from buyers responsible for putting toys on store shelves.

Some toy industry watchers chalk it up to the cyclical nature of playthings. Nostalgic grandparents who remember "Bonanza" are now buying the toys for their grandkids. But this time around, there's a difference: Reality has set in.
Or are they?Schleich North America introduced its World of the American Frontier line in the United States last year. The toy line features 14 3- to 4-inch figures, including a Sioux doctor and a prospector with a donkey. A frontier family will be introduced later this year. Accessories include a canoe, totem pole, tepee and campfire. Katherine MacLean, sales and marketing coordinator for the company, said the line was five years in the making to ensure historical accuracy.Gee, I'm glad these new Indian toys aren't stereotypical. I'd hate to see them if they were.

Yeah, that canoe probably will come in handy as the Sioux "doctor" travels across the Plains to visit his patients. Maybe he can stop by and visit some totem poles on the way.


voyageur said...

You can see the toys right here:


Rob, I hope you realize that the Sioux were/are not just a Plains people. The Eastern Sioux "doctor" (medicine man) would have used a canoe at times to take advantage of the abundant waterways.

So, what do we see in the toys? Ignoring the cowboys, I see one Chief and three Warriors (there's your stereotypes for you). I'm not sure what to make of the feathers on the Medicine Man. The Sioux Mother, Boy, and Girl aren't really bad, I think. Nor is the canoe, which is occupied by one Native (not the "doctor") who does not seem to be a warrior or a "Chief".

The Tipi and the campfire fit right in with the Sioux figures.

However, what were they thinking with the totem pole??? This does feed into the most basic stereotype of the generic Native who lives in a tipi with a totem pole standing next to it.

Rob said...

The Sioux that everyone knows about were and are "just a Plains people." Except for a few historians, nobody is talking about the Sioux before they migrated west. No movie, TV show, book, comic book, cartoon, or toy that I know of has ever featured a non-Plains Sioux. In the context of this posting and these toys, we're talking about the Plains Sioux.

You can confirm this by looking at the toys themselves. Except for the canoe and the totem pole, these toys all represent Plains Indians. They look reasonably accurate, too. None of these figures are dressed as a Eastern Woodland Indian would've dressed.

In addition, the tipi and the ponies come from the Plains era. Even the cowboy figures come from the Plains era. (If they were supposed to come from colonial times, they would've been dressed like Daniel Boone.) Of the 15 toys pictured, 13 represent figures or objects from the Plains era.

Yes, the manufacturer could've thrown in one "Eastern Sioux" in a canoe for variety's sake. And it could've thrown in a totem pole from the Pacific Northwest for variety's sake, too. The more likely explanation is that these toys represent thoughtless stereotyping on the toymaker's part. Tipis, canoes, and totem poles are among the most well-known artifacts signifying Indians.

One more note: Even if 10 of the 12 Indian toys are authentic representations of Plains Indians, the whole collection is stereotypical. As readers of this blog know, there were and are hundreds of Indian cultures beyond the Plains. How about skipping the Lakota/Cheyenne toys (or the Navajo/Apache toys) for once? How about giving us Tlingit, Yurok, Chumash, Hopi, Shoshone, Creek, Seminole, Chippewa, Shawnee, Mohawk, Seneca, or Wampanoag toys instead?

Rob said...

Needless to say, we could do a whole analysis of this World of the American Frontier toy line. Cowboys as harbingers of civilization. Indians as obstacles to progress. Nothing to indicate Indians occupied and owned the entire continent before the white man arrived. Nothing to indicate they were major players in colonial history before the government forcibly relocated them. Just the last valiant Sioux Indians, who are about to fight a losing war before they fade into the mists of yesteryear.

In short, Schleich hasn't given us the breadth and depth of Indian cultures. It's given us the remnants of them. As with sports mascots and other stereotypes based on Plains Indians, these toys "celebrate" the mighty warrior as a thing of the past. What's a Choctaw business owner, a Narragansett surgeon, or an Inuit filmmaker supposed to think about that?

Schleich is apparently an established German toy company. As you may know, Germans love their stereotypical images of cowboys and (Plains) Indians. The latter is epitomized by Winnetou, who is practically a cult figure in Germany. See Adolf Hitler: A True American for a long debate on the subject.

The Local Crank said...

Hey, what about the Cherokee toys? I'm looking forward to the Sequoyah action figure with authentic syllabary writing action! And maybe a John Marshall Supreme Court playset, to reenact Worcester v. Georgia!

voyageur said...

Rob, I'm sure you are right that the canoe is just part of their stereotyped grouping of toys. And Schleich took a few years to think of this???

Writerfella, I'm sure you will be first in line to buy any John Bennett Herrington astronaut action figure along with action figures of modern Pequot leaders, right?

voyageur said...

(Also, the Sioux did not as much migrate west as they expanded west. Some did stay in the east:


I have never seen a "movie, TV show, book, comic book, cartoon, or toy" depicting the Eastern Sioux, other than a Breyer toy horse named after one of the eastern chiefs.)

Rob said...

I think of the Mdewakanton Sioux of southeastern Minnesota as part of the Plains era. Which is roughly equivalent to the historical era. That is, ever since we've known the Sioux, they've lived in the Northern Plains, which includes parts of Minnesota.

The Eastern Sioux I was referring to lived in the Eastern Woodlands. That means east of the Mississippi in the Ohio Valley and elsewhere. That's where the Sioux would've used canoes first and foremost.

The origin and migration of the Siouian people:


In the Mississippian Period (AD 800 ­ 1500 AD) the Siouian peoples would spread east and west from the mounds of Newark (Ohio) and Cahokia (Illinois). ... As the Iroquois League drive[s] into the Ohio Valley, the great Sioux migration west begins.

Their location in historical times:


The Sioux were first noted historically in the Jesuit Relation of 1640, when they were living in what is now Minnesota. ... In the mid-18th cent., having driven the Cheyenne and Kiowa out of the Black Hills, the Sioux inhabited the N. Great Plains and the western prairies—mainly in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and up into the bordering provinces of Canada.

The extent of the Great Plains:


The region has a vast, generally high plateau, called the plains, extending from northwestern Canada through parts of the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In the United States the plains continue south through sections of Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.

Rob said...

This playset is all about cowboys vs. Indians. I suppose you could have them sitting around the campfire swapping tales, but more likely you'd have the cowboys attack the Indians and vice versa.

But even with the "cowboys vs. Indians" theme, Schleich could've used a wider array of Indians. After all, the white man fought a variety of tribes--e.g., Shawnee, Seminole, Cherokee, Creek, Comanche, Navajo, Apache, Modoc, Nez Perce--along a variety of "frontiers."

voyageur said...

I was indeed referring to the "historical" era starting with 1640. At this time, most of the Sioux population was Dakota, and lived in that part of Minnesota that was actually not part of the Great Plains at all. Non-Plains areas of the area of that state at that time included the Big Woods (mostly gone now) and the eastern rivers.

This map:


shows a good approximation of what counties in Minnesota are plains or not.

The Mille Lacs region mentioned in your infoplease historic times link is/was not part of the Great Plains.

The two links on migration seem to contradict each other: one mentions the pre-"historic" Sioux moving to Minnesota from the South, and the other one says they came there from the northeast. Most of the accounts I have found support the "from the south" (Cahokia, etc.) idea

The Local Crank said...

"Or maybe a three-piece suited figure of Charles Curtis, the lone Native American ever to be elected as Vice-President of the United States (under Herbert Hoover, 1928)."

Excellent! We can have him ride the trolly along with army troops on his way to bust the heads of the WWI veteran bonus marchers in 1932. He was eventually stopped when someone pointed out that Vice Presidents can't do that sort of thing.

Seriously, though, you might be on to something. With the market for high-end "collector's item" action figures, why couldn't we have figures of Wilma Mankiller, Leonard Peltier, Redbird Smith and so forth? The Navajo Code Talker GI Joes were popular (though I noticed they also had a stereotypical Indian in their other line of toys, complete with face paint, long hair and bow and arrow, all of which the Army tends to frown upon). For that matter, why couldn't we have historically accurate realistic figures depicting Joseph Brant, Tecumseh, John Ross, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Goyathlay, Black Hawk and some of the other great figures of history? That's something I would definately buy for my kids.

Anonymous said...

Indians are not toys!! That includes Tecumseh, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse... who by the way happen to be some of the most heroic, legendary and revered Indians in history. This is so insulting and demeaning. When was the last time anyone saw or played with a toy African figure, Irish doll or a Chinese action figure? This kind of stereotyping is becoming so tiresome.


voyageur said...

Local Crank: Along with the other modern Native action figures you mention, surely there would be room for the pioneer of Native-related science fiction who also wrote a Star Trek episode?

voyageur said...

And here are some more action figures from an outfit called "Dog Soldiers"


They feature several figures of Pawnee, Cheyenne, and Apache (along with white and African-American military figures).

Once again, we see the stereotype of only Plains Warriors being presented. However, this company specifically has a focus on military figures from the West during a certain narrow time period.

Rob said...

If some Sioux weren't living on the Plains in historical times, they were Plains-adjacent. They weren't living in the Eastern Woodlands where canoeing was commonplace.

Proving the point, you don't find many historical references when you Google "lakota canoe" or "sioux canoe." And even if the Sioux used canoes in Minnesota, we don't associate them with canoes in the popular culture.

If you want representative objects in your toy set, how about a travois, a buffalo hide, or a peace pipe instead of a canoe? For that matter, how about a bullboat, which is defined as:


A shallow, saucer-shaped skin boat used especially by Plains Indians for transporting possessions and sometimes persons across rivers or streams.

Rob said...

The Good Stuff to Go collection includes three well-known Indian warriors, but at least it doesn't include a Lakota warrior. Because of that hint of diversity, the collection isn't totally stereotypical.

In addition to the GI Joe codetalker, Mattel has a set of Native Barbies. You can read about them here:






We probably could find dolls of every ethnic type if we searched for them. Whether they'd be stereotypical or not is another question.

If a set of Native dolls included everyone on this list


would that be bad? I wouldn't think so.

Anonymous said...

At the beginning of the "historic" time in the 1640s, most of the Sioux population was believed to be off (not on) the plains, and living and canoeing in the woodlands. The Lakota division, located in the plains part of Minnesota, was at this time much smaller in population proportion.

I agree though that the woodlands Sioux are not the popular "Dances with Wolves" idea of the Sioux.

I also give the Dog Soldiers collection at "Good to Go" points for not including the Lakota in their collection, and for what appears to be a strong effort at a (an?) historically appropriate appearance of their figures.

The "100 Native Americans" list you link to would be a very good idea for creation of accurate action figures. To answer Anonymouse's concern, they'd likely be collected and not played with.

(Whether or not it becomes a set of 101 with the addition of the creator of Native American Science Fiction, complete with a warm shower play set, is entirely unknown).

The Local Crank said...

"Indians are not toys!!"

I agree 100%. We aren't mascots, symbols or marketing tools, either.

" That includes Tecumseh, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse... who by the way happen to be some of the most heroic, legendary and revered Indians in history."

Also agreed 100%.

"This is so insulting and demeaning."

I just don't see that and I think you missed my point. For one thing, I was referring more to high-end collector's item figures as a way to honor NDN history and heritage. I should have stated though that some tribes have religious objections to physical represenations and that should obviously be respected. As for actual kid toys, I would like my kids to have action figures who are NDN but are not blatant stereotypes, just as African Americans wanted their kids to have toys that "looked like them." Yes, I know there are "Native" Barbies, but as I recall they all wear at least approximations of historic dress. Why can't NDN figures wear the same clothes other figures wear? We don't all go to work in ribbon shirts or jingle dresses.

On a less serious note (and with all due respect), Winterfella, I think anyone who starred in Porky's II should definately be immortalized as an action figure, perhaps with a variant wearing a Star Trek uniform.

Anonymous said...

" stealing the Bud Man's costume while the dude is warmly showering in The BatesMotel..."

Are you sure that wasn't Duffman?

"Duffman! (Uh! Uh!) Lost His Costume!"

The Local Crank said...

"writerfella wore a buckskin costume with feather and headband (and later a full headdress) as a Native American guide for an African safari"

No doubt the guide was hired b/c of the NDN's well-known mystical tracking ability. See, we're just like elves! Only without the pointy ears!

Rob said...

I doubt writerfella will get your Simpsons reference, voyageur. Remember, he isn't a fan of the show.