As mentioned briefly here, I am joining Amber at The Literary Wife in an informal reading challenge of sorts as we read and blog our way through the top 100 children’s books as voted on by readers of Elizabeth Bird’s A Fuse #8 Production.
This was another reread for me, very hard for me to do so. I found the whole book to be extremely paternalistic and completely disrespectful of Native peoples. I hadn’t understood this when I read the book as a child.
What changed? Let me explain…I received two degrees from the University of Oklahoma, a B.A. in English and a Masters in Library and Information Studies. While a student, I took a class on the portrayal of Native American peoples by non-Native writers. I recall reading the diaries of Christopher Columbus, The Last of the Mohicans, and I Heard the Owl Call My Name. Dr. Geary Hobson really impressed upon us how much these writings reflected the culture and society of the times in which they were written. None of them had much to do with true Native culture and experiences, although of the batch, I Heard the Owl…was the least offensive.
Later in library school, I learned something I hold to be true to this day–what happens outside of class is as important if not more so than what happens in class. I don’t recall the exact details of the conversation, but one day found myself talking with Dr. Lotsee Patterson about this very book, The Indian in the Cupboard. I believe that even after all my study of criticism, critique and reading, I was on the side of, oh it is just a story, nothing really harmful there. What Dr. Patterson said to me changed my understanding instantly and forever. No one would have written, much less published a book called The China Man in the Cupboard. It might have been around the same time that I heard Native author Joseph Bruchac speak, and he addressed a question that people ask him all the time: Can they tell his stories? His answer was yes, but you should consider telling your own stories first.
So what am I saying? Don’t buy this book for your library, your classroom, your child, grandchild. Is that a strong statement to make? Why would I, who stands for access and freedom of ideas suggest this? Because most children will not live, work, and study with Native Americans. This book, the portrayal of this Indian could become for them their understanding of Native peoples. Instead, look to sites like Oyate and American Indians in Children’s Literature to help you select the best books that portray Native lives and history honestly and respectfully.
If you must buy this book, or if a child in your life reads this title, then read it with them, encourage critical reading. Have them read other books, like the ones listed here. I leave you with this quote from Drs. Lotsee Patterson and Rhonda Harris Taylor:
“There is no way any student can be protected from all stereotypical depictions. These images are too pervasive to be totally avoided – that’s the bad news. The good news… is that a critical thinking skills model of instruction, coupled with resources carrying the authentic voices of Native Americans, can inoculate students against becoming victimized by rhetoric, assumptions or visual images.”*
*Taylor, Rhonda Harris and Lotsee Patterson. “Getting the ‘Indian’ Out of the Cupboard: Using Information Literacy to Promote Critical Thinking.” Teacher Librarian, vol. 28, no. 2, December 2000, pages 9-14.
Reviewed from public library copy. Amazon Affiliate: If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.