October 06, 2009

Stereotypes in A Season of Gifts

Educator Debbie Reese reports on a children's book involving an Indian burial ground and a "Kickapoo Princess":

Richard Peck's A SEASON OF GIFTSI've had a flurry of email of late, asking if I've read Richard Peck's new book, A Season of Gifts. For my readers outside of children's literature, Peck is a much-acclaimed writer. His A Year Down Yonder won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2000 and his A Long Way from Chicago was a Newbery Honor winner in 1998.

These emails were not the first I'd heard about the book. A few weeks ago, Roger Sutton mentioned it at his blog, saying something like "pass the popcorn" and that the PC police were not going to like the book.
Some quotes from the book, pg. 55:However, the elderly landowner admitted that her property and outbuildings are built over an ancient Kickapoo burial ground.

"Some used to say they'd seen the ghost of a girl in a feathered headdress and moccasins," Mrs. Dowdell recalled. "You know how people talk. They called her the Kickapoo Princess."
And pg. 60:[Edna-Earl (teen girl)] clearly saw the Kickapoo Princess descending from a great height, probably heaven or the Happy Hunting Ground. Edna-Earl saw a pair of beaded moccasins dangling a good six feet above the ground. Maybe higher.

They wee all scared too speechless to warn Barbara Jean. But they all agreed on one point: The Kickapoo Princess was wearing a full feathered headdress and carried a pair of gourd rattles in her weirdly pale little hands. And they all said her hair was in braids.
(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 9/29/09.)

Comment:  As Reese notes, the Indian burial ground is one of the most common clichés in stories about Indians. Her main complaint is that A Season of Gifts treats the Kickapoo as if they're dead, not a thriving tribe in Oklahoma.

To me, the main problem is the whole concept of the "Kickapoo Princess." Unless the Kickapoo were different from other tribes, they didn't have princesses and they didn't let women wear feathered headdresses. This "Princess" sounds like a male fantasy from a comic book or a horror movie. I bet she looks like a Hollywood starlet and is dressed in a buckskin mini-skirt.

About the only excuse for this book is if there really is a legend of a Kickapoo Princess who appeared over a burial ground in a chief's headdress. Then I could (barely) see appropriating the legend for a work of fiction. But if that wasn't Peck's inspiration, he's created a stereotypical story based on stupid stereotypes. He has only himself to blame if people criticize him for it.

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

A Kickapoo Princess?

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