Thoughts on The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

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.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Your post brings up some interesting points. I have long-loved the Indian and the Cupboard books, which I read when I was 9 or 10. I’ve thought of rereading them, but the points your post mentions makes me wary of it because I want to still have those positive memories of the book. I can see how the “Cowboys and Indians” racist stereotypes would be disturbing now. Especially since even the title isn’t politically correct.

    1. Lorren » I don’t think using the term “Indian” is the worst offender here. Many Native American people call themselves “Indian” or “American Indian.” But there are plenty of stereotypes that are just plain wrong in here that cause far greater issues of insensitivity.

  2. I loved The Indian in the Cupboard too…I remember reading and loving the entire series of books, though the first was always my favorite. I haven’t read it in years, though, and I do cringe a bit when I remember some of the stereotypes of the book. I had that experience recently, when I reread another childhood favorite and found the book riddled with unflattering and racist stereotypes of native peoples in the West Indies.

    As much as I loved The Indian in the Cupboard, I’m not sure I would pass it on to my children (if I had any). Personally, I think there’s a difference between a book that was published recently as opposed to a book that was published a long time ago and thus may be indicative of people’s views back then.

    I think the difference lies in society’s beliefs and perceptions at the time that the book was published. As you point out, The Indian in the Cupboard was published about 30 years ago. We were past the age of “cowboys and Indians” and I think, had Lynne Reid Banks done some research to present the tribes realistically, the book would still hold true as both an enjoyable read and a teachable opportunity. I’m sure in the past 30 years we have made some new discoveries about Native American life, but I think even 30 years ago, Banks would have had basic information to correct some of the misconceptions she included in her book.

    The Little House series is a good example of books I would still pass onto my kids, regardless of the racist stereotypes of Native Americans they contain. The discussion about the book would be slightly different. It would be an acknowledgement that white settlers had problematic viewpoints of Native Americans and it would be a good gateway to explain both conflicts between white settlers and Native Americans, as well as a gateway into Native American tribal life and history.

    I’m interested to see what your other followers think about this issue. As I mentioned, I don’t have kids, and I’m curious as to how current parents approach these dilemmas.

    1. Mona » Yes, I am amazed that this book was so widely read and loved even by people of my own generation! A whole series, including one published in the 1990s? The movie was made in the 1990s! To me that is amazing, that the cowboy-and-indians stereotype was acceptable even in 1995 when the movie was made. I think what you suggest — that there is a difference in accepted attitudes in considering a book published in the ’80s and one published 100 years before — is right on. But it does make me uncomfortable that we accept this double standard. As I said, a native person would probably NOT find THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD to be fun. How do they feel about the older classics too?

      I am preparing to reread the Little House books. I also remember loving them but I suspect there are things in there that are likewise uncomfortable. I am hoping, as you suggest, that they still provide valuable viewpoints of colonization, although I do hope to find a comparative book sharing the Native perspective.

  3. Lynne Reid Banks has written other less problematic book you could give your son. I adored The Fairy Rebel, for one, and The Farthest-Away Mountain. And maybe also Angela and Diabola? It’s been years since I read most of those, but I remember them fondly, and they don’t have the awkward racial dynamics that make the Indian in the Cupboard books tricky.

  4. Oh, I’m so glad that you read and appear to have enjoyed Charles C. Mann’s 1491 – I feel like that book completely shifted my understanding of history, and I’m glad it had an impact on you as well.

    I remember reading The Indian in the Cupboard growing up, and even the cover was probably pretty stereotypical. I think there’s a series, isn’t there? I don’t remember much about the book, but I remember really enjoying the idea that a toy could come to life. Thinking about it as an adult, I am POSITIVE I would have the same trouble with it that you did.

    1. Aarti » I did enjoy 1491. Very interesting. There is also a YA version of it (BEFORE COLUMBUS) that appears to be pretty much the same text, sans so many quotes from experts.

      Yes, there is an entire series of INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD books. I never read the others, but looking at this one now, as an adult, I’m amazed that she could get away with continuing the series well in to the ’90s. This first one is so problematic.

  5. I’m a teacher librarian at a K to grade 8 schooI. didn’t share it with my children. I removed it from the school where I was first a TL.
    There are lots of great books, so why put this one out there? Regardless of how well written it may or may not be, as a stand alone novel there is no guarantee of an adult filter.
    If a discussion about stereotypes is on the agenda, I don’t have to use this novel to get to the point.

    1. Greg Harris » It’s really too bad, because I remember loving it as a child! I just can’t believe how prevalent the stereotypes are in this relatively new book!

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