Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 14, Maturity & Minstrels

In the fourteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Omakayas and Laura are both growing up, and I discover a terrifying surprise… Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Game of Silence

game of silence - louise erdrichIn the sequel to The Birchbark House, we pick back up with Omakayas and her family of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people the following year. The book begins with a rather terrifying event: the arrival of an entire village of starving, frightened people who have left their village never to return. Their village has been destroyed by the Bwaaneg (a neighboring and apparently horrifying tribe). The silver lining of this is that we get to see the automatic and deep hospitality of Omakayas’s people, who immediately clothe, feed, and house an entire village of people, just like that. And for the long haul, too. Omakayas’s family basically adopts a baby boy, which Omakayas appreciates since she has a baby-shaped hole in her heart.

As the book progresses, this early foreshadowing of the threat of the Bwaaneg is coupled with the growing threat of the whites from the east, who are insisting that the Anishinaabe must move further west — right into Bwaaneg territory. This plotline is not really resolved by the end of the book, and I imagine it will be dealt with more thoroughly in The Porcupine Year (BBH #3).

I appreciated being able to see the Anishinaabes’ reaction to this demand from the whites in a fictionalized/narrative format, since I’ve already read it so many times in Wounded Knee. Omakayas’s people decide that if they are being asked to move, someone must have broken the treaty — so they literally send an expedition of men to travel around to all the different villages to ensure that they have kept their word before they decide how to respond to the whites. That is integrity, right there! Unfortunately when the men ascertain that they have, in fact, KEPT the treaty, they discover that it’s just that the whites broke it. Surprise surprise. (Not to me — but it is to them a bit. Remember, this book takes place earlier than most of the events of Wounded Knee.)

Other than the increased interaction with and mention of whites in this novel, the other thing I really noticed and appreciated was the level of insight into Anishinaabe society and child-rearing. Over and over again I got to see the care with which Omakayas’s family not only teaches her important survival skills (like gathering food or processing animal hides), but helps her to identify and grow her unique personality and calling as a member of her people group. Check out this amazing quote from an elder after Omakayas dreams a dream that helps her people:

You have done a great thing…. Gizhe Manidoo gave you a very great gift, but you must remember that this gift does not belong to you. This gift is for the good of your people. Use it to help them, never to gain power for yourself. For as soon as you misuse this gift, it will leave you. Mi’iw minik! (p.221, emphasis added)

WOW. This is such a powerful affirmation of Omakayas personally, but it also redirects that sense of value and purpose back to Omakayas’s role in her community. Her gifts are not simply for her to enjoy — they are given in order to serve and bless others. And if they are not used for their intended purpose, there will be consequences. What a powerful and meaningful moment in a young person’s life! This especially struck me in contrast to LHotP, where Laura is also taught responsibility, but in a way that subsumes her personality. Here we see that it is not only possible but WONDERFUL to teach children responsibility AND affirm their unique personalities.

Okay, enough parenting talk. =)  A quick note about the title — it refers to a game the elders use to teach the children to practice silence. It struck me as a slightly more fun version of “children should be seen and not heard” — and it also weirdly reminded me of a game I still played when I was in school — “INDIAN SILENCE, ONE TWO THREE GO!!!” Anyone else? Apparently our weird “Indian” game may actually be based in a grain of truth… much like many other stereotypes…

As I prepare to read The Porcupine Year, I’m really looking forward to seeing how Omakayas will continue to grow into her adult role in the community and [[SPOILER WARNING!!!!]] how the Anishinaabe will survive the Bwaaneg and still try to appease the whites.

Little Town on the Prairie

little town on the prairieIn this, the seventh book in the Little House series, the town of De Smet, South Dakota is beginning to grow into a “real town”, and as it does we get to see more of the accouterments of “civilization” in the 1880s. For example, the town gets a church, there are several parties, and a Literary Society forms and even hosts a town-wide spelling bee! (Hilarious.) We also — HOORAY!! — finally get to see Mary go to college!

This development of the town handily parallels the entering of Laura into relative adulthood. (Despite being not quite sixteen, Laura is in the most advanced class at school and she and her friends begin to be concerned with keeping up with trends in fashion and other social niceties. Laura even is forced to begin wearing a corset, which is a SAD DAY.) Laura fully participates in nearly all of these new events, and we see her take on even more of an adult role in helping Ma and Pa continue to care for her two younger sisters (Carrie and Grace). Laura even gets a job (nearly unheard of at the time for “respectable” girls) sewing piecework in town — and then studies for her teaching certificate — all in order to help pay for Mary’s college tuition.

By the end of the book, we also see more clearly the beginnings of Laura’s relationship with Almanzo Wilder. Throughout the book, Laura is aware of Almanzo — he’s the one with the beautiful horses who saved the town over the winter! — but one of the other girls is infatuated with him, so Laura doesn’t really pay attention. Then, about 2/3 of the way through the book, Almanzo all of a sudden starts talking to Laura and offering to escort her home from things. (Apparently he’s heard feisty tales about Laura from his sister, who was Laura’s school teacher, and was impressed!) Their courtship will comprise much of the next book, so it’s kind of funny to see how their acquaintance begins a bit randomly.

On a cultural note, there was one APPALLINGLY AWFUL thing in this book that I DID NOT REMEMBER from reading these books as a child: a minstrel show. For those of you who don’t know, a minstrel show is a comedic song-and-dance schtick popular in the mid- to late 1800s (though they still appeared as late as White Christmas in the 1950s!) where the performers put on blackface and act out stereotypical black characters, such as the “Mammy”. These shows are pretty much a giant pile of “let’s all laugh at stereotypical jokes about black people!!” I think my mouth dropped open at the first illustration and stayed that way through all nine repetitions of the word “darky”:

little house minstrel showThe whole crowd was carried away by the pounding music, the grinning, white-eyed faces, the wild dancing.

There was no time to think. When the dancing stopped, the jokes began. The white-circled eyes rolled, the big red mouths blabbed questions and answers that were the funniest ever heard. Then there was music again, and even wilder dancing.

When the five darkies suddenly raced down the aisle and were gone, everyone was weak from excitement and laughing. (p.258-9)

Pa is even one of the performers — he’s the one playing the bones.

Once I got past my shock that this was in a children’s book that is so widely recommended in schools, I had a few thoughts:

  1. These events take place in 1881, at pretty much the height of minstrel shows.
  2. This book was first published in like 1940, only forty years after the height of minstrel shows, and a time when segregation was still legal.
  3. This event portrays an accurate picture of what sorts of things have happened in our past.
  4. Even though #1-3 are all true, I still feel pretty icky when I read this. Especially since there’s no CONTEXT for this! If a (white) kid just reads this book for fun, there is ZERO context or explanation to help them understand that this was a racist and degrading part of our racist and discriminatory history, and that they should not go call a black person a “darky”. Let alone how it makes black kids feel!

Not to mention the delightfully folksy impromptu speech by the town’s only elected official on the 4th of July:

Well, boys, I’m not much good at public speaking, but today’s the glorious Fourth. This is the day and date when our forefathers cut loose from the despots of Europe. … They had to fight the British regulars and their hired Hessians and the murdering scalping red-skinned savages that those fine gold-laced aristocrats turned loose on our settlements and paid for murdering and burning and scalping women and children. (p.72, emphasis added)

Holy terrifying and unopposed racism, Batman! That is NOT the Independence Day story I would want MY children to read! At this point, any brownie points Author-Laura gained from having Pa somewhat defend Indians have been wayyyyyyy outweighed by the repeated and un-contradicted negative and violent depictions of Native peoples.

Anyway. Let this be the decider — if you are planning on reading these books with your children, prepare to explain/discuss lots and lots of discriminatory remarks and events! They will quickly gain a pretty good historical understanding of systematic oppression in our country’s history. The fact that this sort of thing is treated so normally — minstrel shows are normal, Ma hating Indians is normal, a mayor denigrating Indigenous peoples at a public event is normal — tells us a lot about the inherentness and ubiquity of racism in our country’s history and structures. We have a lot of work to do.

Conclusion

What really is almost laughable is rereading the line from the 4th of July speech — “murdering scalping red-skinned savages, paid for murdering and burning and scalping women and children” — and then scrolling back up to read about the Anishinaabe carefully investigating their keeping of the treaty and Omakayas being gently and thoughtfully raised to responsible adulthood by her elders. These two depictions of Native people are about as opposite as it’s possible to be. And that dissonance, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m glad that I’m doing this project, and why I’m glad that resources like American Indian Children’s Literature exist. Because while that gap is slowly shrinking, it certainly is still there. Just go to a football game in Washington. (Or don’t.)

Tune in next week for The  Porcupine Year (BBH #3) and These Happy Golden Years (LH #8).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s