November 10th, 2009


Indians In The Cupboard? What Were You Thinking? Let Them Out!

Okay, Nancy, I hope you’re happy. You wanted people to sit up and take notice of the title of our week in the Tollbooth: Get the Indians Out of the Cupboard. You even hoped this might offend some people and spark an important conversation. I’m going to rise to the bait.

To start with, I’m offended. <smiles sheepishly>

This is my knee jerk reaction because there’s a strong, insistent voice inside of me—maybe it’s one of my characters or maybe it’s my alter ego—and this voice says: “I come from a strong people. I come from a people whose oral history documents the survival of seven ice ages, a people who have flourished where others could not. I can find my way out of the cupboard without anyone else’s help, thank you very much.”

(Cupboard! What a quaint word. It makes me think of covered wagons, which makes me think of tepees, which makes me think of igloos. And STEREOTYPES . . .

. . . but wait, I digress. I haven’t even introduced myself, yet.)

Hello everyone, I’m Debby Dahl Edwardson. I was born and raised in Minnesota and am of Norwegian ancestry—I even speak the language. But I’ve lived in Alaska, in the northernmost community on the North American continent, for over thirty years—the majority of my life, in other words. My husband is Inupiaq. We have seven children and I enter this conversation as both a mother of Native American children, and as a writer of books for these children and, I hope, for other children, as well.

Here’s how I think a lot of Native American children get themselves out of the stereotypical Native American cupboard that exists in many of the children’s books written about their people. It’s really simple. They just don’t read these books. Sometimes--a lot of times--they don't read books at all. You can see it in the reading test scores of their schools. And it’s a logical response. If you don’t see yourself in books, or if the image you see is so distorted that it bears little or no resemblance to  life as you know it, then maybe books don’t have a place in your life.

Nancy showed the cover of the Disney Peter Pan book. Do you remember the movie, the one we grew up on? Did you forget about its portrayal of Indians? Click here and refresh your memory.  Then let’s move away from stereotypes. We are writers and stereotypes are poisonous to us. Stereotypes are the dark side of cliché and, as Robert McKee says in Story (which is actually a book about screenwriting) “. . . the source of all clichés can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: the writer does not know the world of his story.”

Enough said.

When my kids were little we had a Cat in the Hat video that featured the Cat, translating the phrase “Cat-in-the-Hat” into four languages. Three of the languages—French, Spanish and Russian—were accurate. The fourth, “Eskimo,” was jibberish, not to put too fine a point on it. Someone in a Wikepedia article described it as pseudo-Eskimo. That's an interesting concept, don't you think?

I imagine the producer saying, “what’s the odds of an Eskimo kid watching this?” Or, maybe, “there aren’t any real Eskimos left, you know.” Or, “Eskimos are a figment of your imagination, Ted.”

Did Theodore Giesel, the man who wrote stories of social commentary like The Sneeches and The Butter Battle really approve of a video rendition of his work that served to pseudo-ize a people and their language?

Native Americans and Alaskan Natives in the Past Tense. This is the assumption: there are no real Indians or Eskimos left. If they don’t shoot arrows and live in tipees, wigwams or igloos, they aren’t the authentic item and they don't count. Actually, the Eskimos I know do live in iglus (that’s how it’s spelled, by the way, but the plural is actually iglut.) Ours is a two story iglu, wired for internet. Iglu in the dialect of my region is the generic word for house. The snow house you are thinking of is called an apuyyaq.

But I digress again.

About the past tense issue....I don’t write retellings of old legends because I don’t think of Native people as past tense. I know they are alive and well and it is my position that they hold cultural copyright over their own "legends." These are their stories, in other words. They own them. And I have a problem, anyhow, with people who attempt to retell the stories of cultures they have no direct experience with. Why? Because a legend or myth or religious text comes from a specific cultural perspective. It’s part of a whole and as such is reflective of a complex worldview which you need to understand if you are going to write of it. If handled incorrectly these “retellings” can become twisted beyond recognition. And when you take a people’s mythology or sacred stories and twist them beyond recognition, the people in question tend to get a bit testy about it.

If you want to barrow somebody’s story and twist it beyond recognition, go for it—after all, it’s what we do, isn’t it? Well okay, twist is a bit strong. All I’m saying is that if you are going to do a riff off of a traditional story from a culture you have no experience with, it would be best to take their name off of it. Don’t call it “a traditional Inuit tale." This is my advice. I've written one of these. I call it an old old story, no culture attached. I may even publish it someday. No, probably not.

On a very personal level, I am most concerned about the effect of all this has on young Native American readers—and on all young readers, for that matter.

Canadian writer Zetta Elliot, in a discussion on Child_lit recently, said, “For many people of color, not SEEING oneself in a book, over and over again, leads to a lasting colonization of the imagination.” This is a powerful statement, don’t you think?

Uma Krishnaswami assures us that the colonization is not irreversible, but stil.

Heath tip number 1: It is not healthy for the human spirit to be either the colonized or the colonizer.

Okay Nancy, your turn. See you Thursday.

Let’s talk more about that all important question of who can write these stories and how to evaluate them. And if we have time, let’s talk about some craft issues like language and the conventions of storytelling within a cultural perspective. Sound good?

Today is the release date of my new book, Blessing’s Bead, by the way. Join me in person or in spirit at my book launch at Title Wave Books in Anchorage, Alaska from 6-8 pm Alaska tme!

And check out Carol Brendler and Julie Larios’ blogspot Jacket Knack where this week I am talking about the cover of Blessing’s Bead before it becomes a hot issue. Or not.

<winks or says, “I jokes,” which is the Inupiaq equivalent of winking.>