Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fairies and Indians

I subscribe to Debbie Reese's RSS feed because she puts books on my radar that usually wouldn't otherwise get there. Her blog on the representation of Native Americans in children's literature is not a litcrit blog per se--it's closer to Sociological Images, except there's only one theme: obnoxious and harmful stereotypes about Native Americans.

This is the "strong ideology" model if you like, but it's a theme that bears repeating. Debbie's posts don't have the texture, twists, and turns of, say, Aaron's. But you see the necessity of what she does when time and again she rebuts comments by offended school librarians and authors. They're offended, of course, that Debbie was offended by their stereotyping of Native Americans.

Their first line of defense is of course authorial creativity. It's not books that grossly stereotype (homogenize, Orientalize, temporally displace, and kill off) Native Americans that are miseducating children; it's the terrible people who want to censor creativity. Do we not realize that this is art.

And as a corollary, It's just a book; it's not real.

Ought we forget that there are actual children involved--some of them nonwhite? And that when we depict certain people as "magical," we move them into the realm of the not-real as well?

Is it really a terrible abridgment of artistic license to insist that historically oppressed peoples are not toys for you to play with?

Today Debbie writes about a trope in the unreal-Indians vein:
This morning, I read an article in the Telegraph about the "Latitude Festival," an annual music festival that takes place in Suffolk, England. The first one was in 2006. The article in the Telegraph isn't about the music. Instead, Neil McCormick describes the people and setting. Here's what caught my eye:
People enter into the spirit with colourful costumes: there were parties of American Indians, Smurfs and an engaging posse of pensionable old dears dressed as fairies. The audience is, it has to be said, overwhelmingly white and middle-class (and probably predominantly middle-aged).

Indians, Smurfs, and fairies.

Reading those words reminded me of an email I received on December 30, 2007 in response to critiques I posted about one of Jan Brett's books. In her email, the author wrote:
Why is there always someone who wants to rain on someone else's parade? Why can't children just enjoy a good read? I am sure you don't believe in Santa, the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny because they are incorrect in guiding young children's beliefs.

For those that want to study the American Indian ways and beliefs, good for them. For now I will read and enjoy books, just because.

It struck me that she would cast American Indians in that particular framework---of things-not-real. She is a librarian in a public school in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Santa. The Tooth Fairy. The Easter Bunny.
Indians, Smurfs, and fairies.

Debbie's post caught my attention because the Indian-as-fairy trope has been something I've been thinking about, in a back-burner way, for a few years now. The Indian in the Cupboard and Disney's Pocahontas are two twentieth-century examples, but it's also powerfully present in the literature of the early 1800s, leading up to and following the 1830 Indian Removal Act. In Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1826), Mary Conant is an Episcopalian misfit among the Puritans, having a "fairy" nature better suited to old England (17). In an act of rebellion carefully staged to evoke British fairy myths, she walks into the woods to find a husband:
...taking a stick and
marking out a large circle on the margin of the stream, she stept into the magic ring, walked round three times with measured tread, then carefully retraced her steps backward, speaking all the while in a distinct but trembling voice. The following were the only words I could hear,
Whoever's to claim a husband's power,
Come to me in the moonlight hour.

And again,—
Whoe'er my bridegroom is to be,
Step in the circle after me.

She looked round anxiously as she completed the ceremony; and I almost echoed her involuntary shriek of terror, when I saw a young Indian spring forward into the centre. (23)
The mapping of Indian to fairy here is unmistakable; likewise, the ideology that fashions the Indian as destined to vanish (as the fairies are said to have vanished from England, inevitably, with the coming of modernity). Comparing Native Americans to Smurfs makes them not-real; comparing them to fairies makes them an anachronism, a move that can be and has been used to justify their brutal marginalization. And indeed, Hobomok eventually honorably disappears to make way for white modernity.

We're used to the figure of the Vanishing Indian in the U.S.; in parallel, some have hypothesized that the Vanishing Fairy in British folklore is actually based on an oppressed indigenous group, the Picts (I don't have the books on hand, but I believe that Diane Purkiss, for one, entertains this theory).

What's interesting is the way that images of Native Americans can be appropriated as symbols of national identity even while that nation founded itself in part on the violent oppression of said Native Americans. This, too, finds a parallel in fairy mythology, here courtesy of John Ruskin:
Suppose you had each, at the back of your houses, a garden, large enough for your children to play in, with just as much lawn as would give them room to run,--no more—and that you could not change your abode; but that, if you chose, you could double your income, or quadruple it, by digging a coal shaft in the middle of the lawn, and turning the flower-beds into heaps of coke. Would you do it? I hope not. I can tell you, you would be wrong if you did, though it gave you income sixty-fold instead of four-fold.

Yet this is what you are doing with all England. The whole country is but a little garden, not more than enough for your children to run on the lawns of, if you would let them all run there. And this little garden you will turn into furnace ground, and fill with heaps of cinders, if you can; and those children of yours, not you, will suffer for it. For the fairies will not be all banished; there are fairies of the furnace as of the wood... (126-7)

Fairies, vanishing though they be, remain powerful signifiers of English identity. Ruskin argues that it is a tone to transform the English landscape through industry, yet there is a sense of resignation in his words. And perhaps Ruskin can be resigned because, he argues, in spite of everything, the fairies in England will persist. Even if England should lose its gardenlike character (which Ruskin hopes will not happen), England will remain English, hence populated by fairies. In a similar way, Native Americans (who, unlike fairies, are real) are appropriated as signifiers of Americanness even as their anachronism is enforced. And frequently, that enforcement arrives by way of children's literature, which is, don't you know, creative.


skg said...

In Missoula I was struck that the otherwise quite good indie bookshop had, on its "Montana" bookshelf, a lot of Euro-descent writers, a few volumes of old Salish / Pend d'Oreille / Kootenai legendary materials (all U of Nebraska Press, one of which I bought), and ONE volume involving contemporary Native American individuals and issues. Sometimes people don't want to speak about the past and their present, which is fine. But, um, one, as though the Indians had conveniently died off and vanished, which they manifestly have not, in that area.

Incidentally, it is curious that the conventional US rendering for the third-named tribe is "Kootenai," whereas in Canada (primarily British Columbia) it's "Ktunaxa." Pronounced the same, within mild dialectal variation.

Natalia said...

This orthographic revelation is blowing my mind.