April 20, 2010

Neil Gaiman on "dead Indians"

In a 2008 interview, author Neil Gaiman discussed his novel The Graveyard Book:"The Graveyard Book” is a metaphor for life, family and leaving home, Gaiman says. The book opens with a baby boy escaping an assassin who has massacred his parents and older sister. The boy totters to a decrepit cemetery, where he’s adopted by ghosts, christened Nobody Owens (Bod for short) and given the Freedom of the Graveyard.

"Essentially, the world of the graveyard is this glorious extended family,” says Gaiman, who chose a British cemetery as the book’s setting so Bod could interact with historic characters.

"The great thing about having an English cemetery is I could go back a very, very, very long way. And in America, you go back 250 years (in a cemetery), and then suddenly you’ve got a few dead Indians, and then you don’t have anybody at all, unless you decide to set it up in Maine or somewhere and sneak in some Vikings.”
Educator Debbie Reese posted her thoughts on Gaiman's comment about Indians:"A few dead Indians"--Given his reference to 250+ years ago, we can assume he's thinking of 1750 or thereabouts. In fact, by 1750, millions were dead due to warfare and disease. Estimates of the population of American Indians range from 18 million (Henry F. Dobyns estimate) to 75 million (Russel Thornton's estimate).

"...and then you don't have anybody at all" suggests the continent was an empty land. In fact, prior to European contact, there were thriving Native communities all across the continent. At Nambe (my Native Nation), we established ourselves at our current village location in 1300. Before that, we were in other, nearby villages, and before that, the Pueblo people were in places like Mesa Verde, Bandelier, and Chaco Canyon.
Gaiman responds

Gaiman posted a response to Reese on her blog:I was replying to a specific question about European-style graveyards in the US and who you'd find in them and why I didn't set THE GRAVEYARD BOOK in America, which was that they didn't go back far enough, and they didn't give me the dead people I wanted for the story to work. Obviously (or obviously to me) I wasn't saying or implying that the country was uninhabited prior to the arrival of Europeans, or trying to somehow render invisible hundreds of millions of people who had inhabited this content for tens of thousands of years--especially after having very specifically written about them, and about that timespan in American Gods.

(And, of course, European Graveyards in the US go back much further than 250 years.)

A more sensible answer to why I didn't set The Graveyard Book in America was that I didn't want to, but I had a microphone stuck in front of my face by the Hornbook in front of a crowd of people at Book Expo or ALA, and I babbled.

Also apologies to any Icelandic or Norwegian readers who are offended by my imprecision. Obviously none of the Newfoundland settlers were Vikings.
Commenters joined in, with some taking Gaiman's side:Angel Of Wrath said...

I'm part Native American and I didn't really glean any sort of racist lean from what he said.

And I'm really sick of people looking for reasons to be offended.

There are so many other travesties going on in the world today, you should better save your time trying to call attention to them and not caring so much about what an author says.

Get offended because gay marriage is still illegal in most states, get upset about the recession...do something a touch more productive. Seriously.

Taylor said...

Debbie, to put it bluntly, you need to calm down.

Neil's not discounting the deaths of millions of Native Americans. You jumped the gun, acted out of emotion, and didn't pause to really read what he said. There were no Native Americans being buried in European-style graveyards. Of course not.

What he was getting at is that a graveyard in England can go back a couple thousand years, to early AD, when the Romans first settled Britannia and earlier. There is more history. There are more peoples.
And some taking Reese's:Anonymous said...

"And in America, you go back 250 years (in a cemetery), and then suddenly you've got a few dead Indians, and then you don't have anybody at all..." How could this not be read as anything except ignorant? Dr. Reese is not being emotional here. Mr. Gaiman specifically said "a few dead Indians." It's so tiring and stupid for people to continue to imagine that history in the Americas only began when Europeans invaded. Maybe Mr. Gaiman should have just specified that he wanted to write a book about werewolves or vampires or whatever and chose to situate the book in Europe since that continent has a long literary tradition peopled with such mythical creatures. That would have been preferable to disparaging Native peoples, as he did in the initial interview.

Anonymous said...

I like how so many of these comments essentially crack up to "how could you be such a jerk? Why would the phrase "a few dead Indians" be offensive? It doesn't offend me, and my great-great-great-great grandmother was a Cherokee princess! Get over being a minority, because none of us can relate, and you're just picking on famous person of the week."

If people don't know why a comment that SOUNDED LIKE it downplayed the mass genocide of a people could be offensive, then I don't know what to say. The OP could only take this comment in the context it was given where she first saw it. Neil explained its original context and it then made sense. But, in the context as it was from the blog she got it from, it seemed pointless and sensationalist to use the phrase "a few dead Indians," which, historically, has been used malevolently. Not to mention that it makes it seem that Indians are a thing of the past, and that there aren't currently millions of those Indians buried in European-esque cemeteries, thousands more with every passing year.

It must be nice to be unaffected by the constant derogatory comments about NAs, and to never have to wonder if someone you may respect is making one. I love Neil Gaiman, but he really worded this poorly. Full stop. It seems like a lot of you are just being troll-y to get into his good graces.
(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 4/18/10.)

Rob weighs in

I understand the point Gaiman was trying to make. I think he did it poorly enough to deserve the criticism he got. In other words, I'm on Reese's side.

First, to reiterate the obvious, European history in North America goes back 500 years, not 250. By 1750 there were substantial European settlements along the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific coast as well as the Southwest and the Great Lakes area.

Some of the European settlements were built on top of Indian settlements. The Europeans might've buried their dead where the Indians previously buried their dead. So the "European-style graveyards" might have Indians buried informally, if not formally, in the same grounds. That would work fine for a story about ghosts inhabiting a graveyard.

More to the point, Europeans and Indians quickly began mingling in the same settlements. From 1550 to 1750 they were cohabitants in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida, and from 1625 to 1750 in New England, New York, Virginia, and on down the coast.

In some cases Indians joined the settlements voluntarily, became Spanish or English citizens, and intermarried with the foreigners. In other cases they were enslaved or forced into servitude. The Europeans coaxed them to convert to Christianity, after which they could receive a proper Christian burial. Pocahontas is merely the most famous example of an Indian who could've been buried in a European-style cemetery in America. (She's actually buried in England.)

Indeed, New Englanders created "praying towns" for the converted Indians to live in. Yes, towns full of Christianized Indians. Presumably their European-style graveyards had as many Indians as Englishmen.

Gaiman:  right or wrong?

True, few of these old graveyards remain. So technically speaking, Gaiman is correct. Few of the American cemeteries established by Europeans go back before 1750.

But in a broader sense, he's incorrect. With his "Vikings" comment, he clearly implied that America was uninhabited between 1000 and 1750. At best his remarks grossly oversimplified the complex history of pre-Colonial America.

I presume he knows about Columbus and the Pilgrims, but it's not clear what else he knows about this period. In his MARVEL 1602 comic-book series, he wrote about an alternate timeline where the Roanoke Colony of North Carolina survived. In this universe, the New World was populated by a few shadowy Indians and dinosaurs.

This suggests Gaiman's attitude toward American history. Until his English ancestors came over and started civilizing the place, America was a mythical land. Indians, dinosaurs, monsters, and gods all mingled in a prehistoric Neverland. There were no cultures here with burial grounds or cemeteries--just forests and plains with Indians running free like animals.

Incidentally, Angel of Wrath's opinion that we shouldn't spend time correcting historical mistakes and stereotypes is just plain stupid. Experts have noted the harm of Native stereotyping again and again. Angel may be ignorant of why stereotyping is one of the most significant issues facing Indians, but we aren't.

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


m. said...

Oh, leave it to the nons/wannabes to chime in with the "I'm part Native American" line when defending something racist or that stereotypes Indians. Please. You either are or you aren't - none of this 'part' garbage, which most of us know real Native people who happen to be mixed never pull.

Nice try, though, non-Native fan of Neil Gaiman.

Will Shetterly said...

"With his "Vikings" comment, he clearly implied that America was uninhabited between 1000 and 1750. "

Huh? I've run across a few of the Viking theories, but none of them suggested the Americas were uninhabited. They all had to do with Vikings trading with the Indians.

Will Shetterly said...

P.S. 1602 is not set in our history. It's some sort of Marvel Comics history. Quibbling about dinosaurs there makes as much sense as quibbling about magicians.

Unknown said...

If he is thinking of the United States, as an entity, then "250 years" is a close enough approximation.

Unknown said...

(He's misinformed, of course, but I'd make a fool of myself too if I talked long enough about English or European history.)

Will Shetterly said...

I think you're right that that's why he gave the wrong time span, but isn't there a difference between misremembering and being misinformed, especially when speaking off the cuff? I was writing about a US fascist named Pat recently, and I briefly confused Pat Buchanan with Pat Robertson--my mental copyeditor didn't kick in until fifteen minutes later.

Remember, Gaiman's the author of 1602, which has Indians 400 years ago, and I think it's reasonable to assume he heard about Columbus sailing in 1492.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, Will--I think Gaiman should have said something like "The gravestones don't go far back enough, because in America there are very old Indian burial mounds and whatnot, but none of them have headstones, and headstones are (1) easier for me to read and (2) there's little to no New Age BS about them".