April 10, 2008

Even a 9-year-old understands

A teacher gave her daughter a copy of Little House on the Prairie to read. The results are instructive.

On LITTLE HOUSE: "Oh, mom, you would hate it," she replied: "they're wild savages."I had thought I was pretty aware of the negative portrayals of Native Americans in children's literature, had had long talks with my children about why Peter Pan ("what makes the red man red?"), Curious George and others were harmful representations, but I confess to having never read Little House on the Prairie. Like many American kids in the 70s, I grew up with the beloved TV version, though. So I gave my 9-year-old daughter Amaya a copy without thinking twice.

Well, after your presentation I called home to talk with Amaya, who is a voracious reader. "How would you describe the portrayal of Native Americans in Little House?" I asked her. "Oh, mom, you would hate it," she replied: "they're wild savages." Then she thought for a moment and added, "Actually most of the books about pioneer days give the same portrayal, unless they're written from the Indians' perspective." [Yes, she's only 9!] How scary that my fourth grader already sees this pattern clearly. She also commented that when children at her mostly white elementary school play at recess, they often do the war whoop. I should add that the curriculum at my children's school does include factual history about Columbus (not just the Columbus-as-hero model) and tribal diversity, and both of my children's teachers have made an effort to include diverse perspectives in their reading curricula. But as you mentioned in your presentation, these educational efforts don't seem to translate on the playground.
(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 3/31/08.)

Comment:  This anecdote doesn't surprise me. As I've said, our children's primary sources of information are schools and the media. Unfortunately, I'd guess the latter outweighs the former by a factor of 10 or 100 to 1. That is, for every lesson that provides straight information about Columbus and the Indians, kids see 10 or 100 movies, TV shows, cartoons, comic books, children's books, sporting events, and commercial products that feature Indians as savages. As chiefs and warriors from the distant past with no culture or religion.

No wonder kids still love to play righteous cowboys vs. war-whooping Indians. What other group would work better as ready-made villains? They (used to) live here...(we tell ourselves) they were brave and noble...so it's okay to pretend they were bloodthirsty savages who sounded and acted like demons out of hell.

If children emulated the worst stereotypes of any other group--blacks, Jews, gays, et al.--every teacher and parent would crack down on them so fast their heads would swim. They'd get sensitivity training at best, detention or suspension at worst. But it's perfectly all right to mock and denigrate Indians. Why? Because "everyone knows" they really were "wild savages" who are no longer around to protest.

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