Let’s Find out About Indians—or not, as the case may be

In the past week, several Navajo actors walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s film, commissioned by Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six.” The film, meant to be a parody of cowboy movies such as “The Magnificent Seven,” contains characters named “Beaver Breath” and “Wears no Bra” and takes broad liberties with costumes and traditions of the Native people who, in the film, are supposed to be Apache. The Native actors were told that the film would not be racist, but when they complained, they were told that it was a comedy and that “If you are overly sensitive about it, then you should probably leave” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3058283/New-footage-shows-producer-Adam-Sandler-comedy-tell-Native-American-actors-leave-movie-set-overly-sensitive-racist-jokes.html). The actors did leave, not because they were “overly sensitive” but because they were tired, as one actor put it, of being treated like “Hollywood Indians” again.

It is not news to hear that Hollywood depicts Indians in a racist manner. They have been doing so since Hollywood was Hollywood. But (perhaps naively), I was surprised that it was someone from my generation (Sandler is a couple of years older than me) who still thought that having any Indian smoking a peace pipe (whether urinating while doing it or not) was funny . . . and not racist. Sandler makes many of the same choices that earlier directors do—conflating different tribes, using stereotypical images, and belittling Native women. What’s funny about Indians, according to Sandler, is their inherent drunkenness, ridiculous customs and hair styles, and their inability to communicate with white people.

The fact that Indians in Sandler’s film are being seen through the eyes of white Americans, however, is the very crux of the problem. It is why Sandler does not see his film as racist, because he is starting with the “norm” or “status quo” as a white male and highlighting and exaggerating the differences between the “normal” culture and that of Indians. This is comedy—but it is also popular culture, or at least it certainly was during the time period that Sandler and I were growing up. In the 1970s, the only time I encountered living Indians was at the state fair or in a commercial about pollution which was replayed constantly during afternoon cartoons. We knew it as the One-Tear Indian commercial. (You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7OHG7tHrNM.) Children’s books about Indians were similarly not for Indians, but for white readers. Some were “informational” and some were fiction (always historical fiction, never contemporary), but almost all replayed the stereotypes of Hollywood movies, even when trying to be sincere. Two books, both published within ten years of Sandler’s birth, can showcase the attitudes toward Indians in children’s books of the time.

The first is an informational book for beginning readers, Let’s Find Out About Indians (1962), part of the “Let’s Find Out” series by Martha and Charles Shapp which used limited vocabularies to introduce various nonfiction topics to children. Just the title of this book tells a lot about attitudes toward Indians at the time. Other books in the series talked about scientific topics, such as the sun or electricity; if they focused on people, it was in terms of their jobs, such as Let’s Find out About Policemen (1962) or because they were famous, as in Let’s Find out About Christopher Columbus (1964). “Indians” fit into neither of these “people” categories; they are not individualized, and nor is it a profession to be an Indian. They are therefore, presumably, to be classed in the nature of scientific topic. Reading the book confirms this, as it is an anthropological look at the generalized “Indian” of the past. Although the Shapps’ text does suggest that “There were many different Indian tribes” (4) and note some of the different customs and traditions of a few (difference in housing styles, for example), no individual tribes are named. The book does attempt not to entirely exoticize the Indian by showing similarities between the reader and the Indian (“Indian girls played with dolls”), but the fact that the intended reader is a white, middle-class child is emphasized by the book’s final pages. “No matter where you live,” the text suggests, “Indians lived there before you” (40). The illustration accompanying the page, by Peter Constanza, shows two children standing hand-in-hand in front of a picket fence, behind which is a suburban house and the outline of an Indian woman with her baby in front of a tipi. The children appear somewhat startled, but they should be reassured by the fading outline of the Indian and her home: Indians are part of the past.

Have no fear, kids--your forefathers did the ethnic cleansing for you.

Have no fear, kids–your forefathers did the ethnic cleansing for you.

Most if not all fiction of the time about Indians was historical fiction, and generally was set not only in the past, but in a specific past: the period of Euro-American westward expansion. In other words, like the informational books, it was really about white perceptions of Indians rather than about or for Indians. These books were not just published, but promoted to (white) children as examples of good ways to learn about history. In 1975, for example, the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club made a story by Evelyn Sibley Lampman a club selection. The author’s note for the book stresses that Lampman grew up around Indians, and that her father “was very sympathetic with the Indians and their problems, a rare thing in those days” (133). But the title and cover for the book tell a very different story:

A good history lesson?

A good history lesson?

Lampman may have been taught sympathy for the Indians and their “problems,” but the focus of her book is the terror of “innocent” white girls and the brutal violence they face among the Apaches and later Mohaves who capture and “enslave” them. The book is based on the diary of one of the captives, though Lampman changed events to suit her narrative. When Olive Oatman’s family first encounters the Indians, there is not even a discussion (as there is in the Little House books, for example) about who owns the land. “‘They must be Apaches,’ said Lorenzo. ‘Shall I get the gun?’” (White Captives 10).

As long as we teach children that Indians are historical subjects to be studied rather than individuals who live now—maybe somewhere near you!—then there will continue to be Adam Sandlers who do not see it as offensive to belittle them. Let’s find out about Indians—but let’s do it in a way that respects them.

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