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Indians in the House

by Miriam Axel-Lute on January 18, 2012


My older daughter has recently passed a major milestone: ability to handle any sort of plot tension. Not like we’re going in for scary movies or anything, but this does vastly increase the range of books that we can read with her, which, given the amount she likes to be read to, is a pretty great relief.

Being nostalgic types who were all bookworms as kids, we predictably launched right into dragging up our childhood favorite “chapter books.”

That pretty much immediately (and unrelentingly) has led to the next dose of the perennial parenting challenge about when to introduce what difficult concepts to your kids and what to say about them. This shouldn’t be surprising. We read books that were a product of our culture, and so they came along with the trappings of that culture, including to a greater or lesser extent a whole bunch of problematic messages about gender, race, America, the natural world, money, religion, etc.

That doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is how much I don’t remember that that stuff is in there until I find myself choosing on the fly to drop a sentence here or there or pausing again to have a conversation about what this author did or didn’t understand and why it bothers me.

In 101 Dalmatians (the original novel, not the Disney version, and a really good story), it was largely a matter of skipping the references to how the girl puppies couldn’t run as far as the boy puppies, and the part where Pongo tells Missus she looks thinner covered in soot so she doesn’t feel as bad for getting her fur dirty in order to be in disguise. A few dropped sentences didn’t detract from the story much.

The Ramona series is not so much a problem, though I did have explain the history of the phrase “giving away the bride” when Ramona’s aunt got married. My narrative was complemented by her father shouting from the other room “To be very clear, I don’t own you!!”

Little House on the Prairie I probably should have had second thoughts about. I know I read the first book (Little House in the Big Woods) at her age and adored it, and then when I started the second book and it was about some boy (Laura’s future husband), I threw it across the room screaming “This isn’t about Laura!!” and didn’t come back to it or the rest of the series for some period of years. So I don’t know how old I was when I followed Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family out onto the prairie and into what they called “Indian Country.”

It was still apparently long enough ago that I had completely forgotten how much of the book is concerned with Indians—fear of them, curiosity about them, and descriptions of them as “wild men” with “glittering black eyes like snakes.”(Laura figures her Pa knows all about wild animals, so he knows about “wild men” too, and is obsessed with “seeing a papoose” as if it were a rare species of exotic bird.) It could be worse, for sure. Her parents are nervous, but not actually openly hostile.

On the list of groups of people this country still has screwed up messages about circulating freely, Native Americans are far up there, so I feel like I can’t let them slide. I managed to resist attempting to formulate the entire thesis of 1491 in five-year-old terms (though I can’t wait until she’s old enough for the version pitched to kids). We stuck to some pretty basic discussion about people assuming they were better than people who are different than them and white people assuming they had the right to move into land that was already occupied because of those beliefs.

She said, “Yeah, they must not have gone to that party at the museum, so they didn’t understand.” I paused for a moment, and then realized she meant the Iroquois Festival at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave that she attended last Fall. We’ll have a lot of educating left to do, but I’ll admit that knowing that when she thinks of Indians she thinks of people in the current day and not the past was enough to make me pretty excited.

As uncomfortable as it is, I’m guessing reading classics with other redeeming values and being forced to have those explicit conversations will end up being better than if we allowed her to float along without acknowledging and therefore preparing her to face those messages and assumptions. That’s what I tell myself when I take a deep breath and pause the story yet again. It still beats the inanity of Dora and Calliou any day.