April 20, 2010

Stereotypes in Dancing with the Indians

Educator Debbie Reese reviews another children's book about Indians:

Angela Shelf Medearis's DANCING WITH THE INDIANSThe author is Angela Shelf Medearis. In a note in the back of the book she writes that her great-grandfather escaped from slavery in 1862 and ended up in "Okehema, Oklahoma" where she says he was accepted as a member of the Seminole tribe. He married a Seminole woman and they had a son. Their marriage did not last, and he moved near Oklahoma City and married an African American woman in 1909 or thereabouts. Twice a year, he would take his family of nine children to Okehema for a week-long powwow.And:It is because we know so little that I am so disappointed in Dancing with the Indians. The last line in her note says "The text for Dancing with the Indians was inspired by my ancestor's experience." I think, then, the book offers us an important story, but that story is ruined by the stereotypical imagery and factual errors in Medearis's writing and Byrd's illustrations.

Take, for example, the page where Medearis writes:

Our wagon nears the camp.
Drums pound and move our feet.
Soon everyone is swaying
to the tom-tom beat.
And:Turning, now to some of the text and illustration that is stereotypical. Medearis describes the dancers as "fiercely painted" and "reckless" and "fearless and untamed." She says they "stamp and holler." All of those words capture the stereotypical savage Indian that in that stereotypical framework, roamed the land, terrifying the brave pioneers. The accompanying illustrations show a frightened child, drawing back from that "angry cavalcade" as shown:
On the next page, she says, they "sing of ancient battles gloriously fought and won, of shaggy buffalo, and brave deeds they have done." Battles, definitely, but buffalo? Not likely. That illustration shows a man in Plains Indian style clothing, riding a horse, hunting buffalo with a bow and arrow.(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 4/14/10.)

Comment:  A Google search shows the Seminoles of Florida have or had a Buffalo Dance. This could be from when buffalo roamed most of the US, or they could've borrowed it from Indians to the west.

Many Seminoles moved to Oklahoma in the 1830s and 1840s. Meanwhile, the white man was hunting the buffalo nearly to extinction from 1830 to 1870. It's unlikely the Seminoles of Oklahoma had time to develop their own tradition of hunting buffalo on horseback.

So the book's reference to a Plains Indian hunting a buffalo seems incorrect. Even if the Seminoles do a Buffalo Dance, it probably isn't to honor ancestors who hunted buffalo on horseback.

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

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