Middle School (9 - 14) Books

INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD, Lynn Reid Banks. New York, Avon, 1982.

Also the sequels Return of the Indian and The Secret of the Indian. To repeat the criticisms of the introduction, these are classic examples of highly acclaimed books riddled with horrendous stereotypes of Native Americans. Banks has created her "Indian" character from the mixed bag of harmful cliches so common among British authors.

The Indian in the Cupboard and its sequels are much-loved books by librarians and their patrons. But for Indian people, these are some of the worst perpetrators of the most base stereotypes. The miniature toy Indian (Indians portrayed as objects or things) is described as an Iroquois warrior, but is dressed as a movie western version of a generic plains Indian "chief", complete with eagle feather headdress. The warrior is described in the most stereotypical terms and speaks in subhuman grunts and partial sentences. He is manipulated by a more powerful white child, fostering the image of the simple and naive Indian whose contact with the white man can only benefit him and his people.

These books are perfect examples of what to avoid. Reviewed by Lisa Mitten and Naomi Caldwell-Wood, American Indian Library Association


Here's what th publishers say (on thir web page) about. Indian in the Cupboard Despite (or because?) or its racism, it's sold more than 3,000,000 copies in hardcover and almost 1.5 million in paper since its 1982 publication -- before Disney released the film last summer. No book by any Indian writer on any subject for any age group approaches these sales figures by at least two orders of magnitude. Yet Banks's books (there are 2 sequels) have been heavily criticized by literarily competent Native teachers, parents, librarians -- all familiar with children's literature -- as presenting racism discretely, while teaching the young white boy (reader identification character) how to behave as a good paternalistic colonial ruler over "dolls" who, despite their limitations and savagery, are alive and have feelings. The EduBuyer/critics feel it's a great humanistic achievement that the little boy comes to consider his toy Indians (sort of) human in their limited little world.

From the Native authors of THROUGH INDIAN EYES: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN: The object here was not to draw an authentic Native person, but to create an arrsting literary device. Although the little "Indian" is called Iroquois, no attempt has been made in text or illustration, to have him look or behave appropriately. For example, he is dressed as a Plains Indian and is given a tipi and a horse.

This is how he talks: "I help...I go...Big hole. I go through...Want fire...Want to make dance. Call spirits." et cetera. There are characteristic speech patterns for those who are Native speakers, but nobody in the history of the world ever spoke this way.

What one reviewer described as "some lively battle scenes" are among the most graphic war scenes in modern children's literature. As a whole, the book is brutal and the Indians are horrifying. My heart aches for the Native child unfortunate enough to stumble across and read these books. How could she, reading this, fail to be damaged? How could a white child fail to believe that he is far superior to the bloodthirsty sub-human monsters portrayed here? Not any amount of fine writing excuses such abuse of the child audience. -- Reviewed by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale. (Excerpted from TIE review, by permission)

From a Canadian university professor (non-Indian) of children's literature: "The title of the chapter in which Little Bear assumes, or is given, his chieftainship, 'The Chief is Dead, Long Live the Chief,' symbolizes the imperialist, British point of view that subtly pervades all of The Indian in the Cupboard. It is an echo of the ceremonial phrase used at the tim of the death of a British monarch and emphasizes the continuity of the traditions of British rule. While Omri [viewpoint character] may develop admirable moral qualities in his new comprehension of th integrity of individual human bings, he also develops the qualities of imperialistic, though benevolent, control of a subject people. At a time when Native peoples are rediscovering their traditions, developing pride in their cultural beliefs and achievements, and struggling to achieve the dignity of self-government and independence, The Indian in the Cupboard transmits unacceptable viewpoints and messages to young white and Native readers alike." -- Jon C. Stott, from Native Americans in Children's Literature--"The Way it Wasn't: Stereotypes and Misrepresentations"

Hey, hey, hey, hey. Hurt, shame, angry hearts for Native children and parents. Expressed wherever and whenever they had a chance to do so. (white reviewers raved about the wonderful book, how it promotes anti racism.) Training in imperial administration for white youth, as seen by a chap who seems to know about that. And sales figures (by now) over 5 million, plus a Disney film (much hyped) that's been going around since last summer. And there's 2 sequels, too. This gives me a feeling that this book reviews web thing here I've been spending essentially all my available time on for the last few months is like bailing the ocean with a little seive, hopeless. Odds are, just given those sales figures, it's in your school and neighborhood libraries, much recommended, much assigned, much read. Obviously white kids (and their parents and their teachers) love it, training to be a benevolent imperialist, pushing savage little primitive doll-people around (benevolently) is apparently a great reader hook. If you're of the right age, maybe you just loved it as a child yourself, and you've given it to your kids.

Ho, ho, ho, ho. Sold more, by a factor of many millions, than any book on any subject, by any Indian author, ever. Probably sold more than all children's books by Indian authors (there are very few compared to those by whites) combined. Makes me wonder if I'm not wasting my time doing this.....because plenty of Native people have spoken and written about it over its 16-year history as a super-moneymaker, and here's even a big shot professorial Authority weighing in in 1995. Hey, that link to Avon Books where you can read what they say (and Banks says, etc.) you can even order it right there on line. I bet more people see that Avon webpage in a day than will ever see this one. Pretty discouraging, those sales figures sure were.--Paula Giese

File: mi228

Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Monday, May 20, 1996 - 7:54:45 AM