Yesterday, I reread The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks (first published 1981). I loved it as a child. I remember learning about Iroquois Indians and longhouses and being fascinated. I loved the magical adventure when a toy comes to life.
For those that have not yet read the children’s novel, young Omri locks his plastic toy American Indian in a cupboard and the Indian comes to life! His friend does the same to his plastic cowboy, and the result is disastrous.
As an adult, I’m incredibly uncomfortable with the basic errors (false and negative stereotypes) in this book. I also recently finished a nonfiction book about the first Americans, 1491 by Charles Mann, so I believe that my perspective on how the native Indians really were makes me uncomfortable with the stereotypes encountered in this children’s novel today. Looking at The Indian in the Cupboard 30 years after it was first published, I certainly see it as inappropriate and dated. I’m not just trying to be “politically correct” although that is a term that could be applied to me I suppose. It’s somewhat disturbing to read the inaccuracies and the inherent racism in the boys comments … and in the author’s suggestions from those comments.
A few of the things that disturbed me:
- The Indian’s pidgin English. While I’m sure there would have been some language barrier between American Indians and colonists in the early 1700s, the Indian’s pidgin is ridiculously stereotyped. Did the author research how he’d have spoken, or was Little Bear’s English based on the stereotypes in Westerns?
- The Indian is stereotyped as a proud warrior that wants to kill and scalp because he can. Scalping was not that wide spread, and while there was scalping during the French-Indian War, Little Bear’s obsession seems disproportional to what I’ve found about the Natives. Few Haudenosaunee warriors joined the British in campaigns.
- Little Bear calls himself Iroquois when he really would have called himself Haudenosaunee. There are other out of character things. The chiefs of the Five Nations were not so bossy; it was much more of a council. That Little Bear would assume the title chief after the unknown chief died in the cupboard just doesn’t resonate with who his people were in terms of government. “Chief” is quite a symbol of respect, not necessarily a self-appointed inherited title.
- The cowboy’s racist attitudes toward the Indian may fit in with the Westerns on TV in the ’70s and ’80s, but how accurate were they? As soon as he saw the Indian, he wanted to kill him. Did 1880s cowboys just immediately kill Indians they saw? This seemed rather extreme and stereotypical.
- Neither one of the magical toys were people; they were types. True, Little Bear was brave and the cowboy was wimpy. But then boys turned on the TV and became just as racist, laughing at the Western. The characters in the book were like those in a glorified Western (albeit one for kids). What does this really say about the people who supposedly really lived in history? Omri supposedly has learned they are people with feelings, but he’s still playing with them right up to the end.
- Others have compared playing cowboys and Indians to something as offensive to playing slave master and slave. While I’m not sure about that, there is something inherently unequal, unfair, and discomforting about portraying these “people” as toys to interact with each other, starting with the fact that Omri felt he couldn’t play with the Indian unless he had a cowboy as well.
All this is somewhat sad for me to say, since the book is well paced, magical, and simply fun from my WASPy perspective in the twenty-first century. It’s too bad its not one I can readily recommend today. If I were American Indian, I would not have found it “fun.” And that to me is a good reason I shouldn’t be encouraging my son to read it.
What do you think?
To put it another way, at what point is racism in semi-classic literature no longer okay? I ask because there were likewise a few racist comments in The Secret Garden where I recently reread, and I’ve encountered it before in other older classics for children, like Kipling and so forth. But it surprised me how racist this book was, and it’s only thirty years old.
At any rate, if I do hand it to my son when he’s older, it will be with lots of discussion about the attitudes and inaccuracies found therein.