October 01, 2008

Babar's Eurocentrism

Educator Debbie Reese notes a key passage from Babar the elephant's trip around the world in Babar's World Tour:When everyone was rested, they went to Angkor in Cambodia, the ancient city of the Khmers. In Mexico, they climbed a pyramid built by the Aztecs. In both places, the original settlers were gone but tourists abounded.

"Will everyone move out of Celesteville one day, too?" Pom asked.

"Never," said Babar. "But apart from us, it happens a lot, as you'll see."
Reese goes on to say:The "as you'll see" refers to the places they visit next, which are "the cliff houses of the Anasazi in the high desert of the American Southwest, "the Inca Trail, on the same stones that the Incas had walked..." and "... to the remains of the city of Machu Picchu hidden in the Andes Mountains."

How nice for the Babar family and other tourists, that the "original settlers" were gone! How nice that they had, presumably, moved out, leaving these wonderful places for the tourists!
(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's Images of Indians in Children's Literature, 4/18/08.)

Comment:  A few problems with this scene:

1) I believe the pyramid is Maya, not Aztec. Oh well...same thing, right?

2) Many Indians wouldn't agree that they were merely "settlers." Even if you believe their ancestors migrated from Asia, "settler" implies a certain amount of transience. "Inhabitant" is a less misleading choice.

3) The original inhabitants aren't exactly gone. The Spanish conquerors forcibly removed them and made them into peasants and slaves. And yet the Indians' descendants live all around the tourist-occupied ruins. Some may live at the ruins as tour guides or caretakers.

4) Babar's claim that people will never leave Celesteville the way they left the Indian sites is arrogant and impossible to prove. Hasn't he heard of ghost towns in the American West? What about the towns abandoned during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? What about the large portions of New Orleans that people have abandoned since Hurricane Katrina?

Are these examples too modern for you? Well, you can find Greek and Roman ruins throughout the Mediterranean. Empty castles throughout Europe. The Viking settlements in Newfoundland. Roanoke in North Carolina. The rich enclaves left behind when Europeans gave up their colonies in Africa and South Asia. Etc.

It's patently absurd to claim that other cultures abandon sites but "our" culture doesn't. Every culture in history has abandoned sites as it waxed and waned.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

P.S. For the sake of preserving these fragile ruins, I think we should prohibit elephants from climbing them.


dmarks said...

"2) Many Indians wouldn't agree that they were merely "settlers." Even if you believe their ancestors migrated from Asia, "settler" implies a certain amount of transience. "Inhabitant" is a less misleading choice."

I take the word "settler" literally, in that it applies to actual settlers. Thus, the Native settlers from Asia have been dead many thousands of years. I don't see it is transient, however. "Inhabitant" or "Resident" would have been a better word here.

Rob said...

Okay, to be clear: The paleo-Indians who settled in Central America 10,000 years ago are dead. The Maya who inhabited Central America and ruled a great civilization for 3,000 years are dead. But their descendants are still alive.

Meanwhile, Celesteville has "existed" for less than a century. Funny to see Babar lecturing us about a civilization that lasted 40 times longer than his has (so far). If Russell Bates were here, he might call Babar a Europhant.

Maybe Babar should check a map of Africa. How many African countries have come and gone in the last century? Dozens?

Let's recall how many Europeans and Africans feel about elephants. The creatures take up a lot of land, produce ivory worth poaching, but aren't good for much else. Given this unfortunate attitude, I'd be less certain of Celesteville's survival if I were Babar.

dmarks said...

"Let's recall how many Europeans and Africans feel about elephants."

Don't forget the feelings of the elephants. Of course they are a somewhat politically involved minority. One need to look no further than the symbol of the Republican Party to see the long-term political connections of this ethnic group.

To present a more united political front, the two main Celesteville political activism groups: PAC (Politically Active Celestevillians) and HYDERM (Helping Young Determined Elephants with Republican Messages) have merged to form PACHYDERM. The group has yet to endorse John McCain due to revelations of business ties that he has with the Ringling Bros circus. But they do not endorse Obama either, largely due to him being photographed eating an elephant ear at the Iowa State Fair and reactions to rumors spread by Karl Rove that Obama's Kenyan family is involved in the ivory trade.

Another group seems to make more headlines. The AEDL (Anti-Elephant Discrimination League) protests Disney every time a re-release of Dumbo comes out.