Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tommy Hilfiger Playing Indian

Children's books and media are replete with characters (human and not) who put on a feathered headband or headdress and put their hand/paw over their mouths to make what they think is an "war whoop".

Given the pervasiveness of playing Indian, it is not surprising to see a kid doing just that in the new Tommy Hilfiger ad:

If you visit the Hilfiger page, you'll learn that the kid is named Eric, and that he "takes charge of art-directing the Thanksgiving table."

Here's one example:

The "Meet the Hilfer's" campaign (advertisement) is supposed to be oh-so-cool and quirky at the same time. I find it just plain offensive. It reeks of privilege and affluence. If I shopped there, I'd quit giving them any of my money.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Censorship of WANJA, a Picture Book by an Indigenous Australian Author/Illustrator

On Tuesday (August 17, 2010), listservs and Facebook were buzzing about author Pete Hautman's blog post, "The Nasty Thing in the Corner" wherein he talks about Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank and Impulse, being dis-invited to a Texas book festival because of the content of her young adult novels. Hautman's piece is definitely worth reading. Some of my colleagues in children's literature plan to add it to their required readings this coming semester.

The next day, I got an email from Katherine in the UK who reads American Indians in Children's Literature.  She thought I might be interested in Nigel Pearn's "Teaching children to read the Aboriginal world." She was right.

Pearn's article was published on August 18, 2010, in an Australian publication called Eureka Street. I'm unfamiliar with the publication, but really like Pearn's article. Like Hautman's blog post, it is about censorship. In Hautman's case, it was the author being dis-invited to a festival. In Pearn's article, it is about a book being removed from an Australian library.

The book at the center of Pearn's article is called Wanja, One Smart Dog. For some reason, I'm unable to upload the cover, but you can read the entire book online at Indij Readers.  As I clicked around the site, I see a lot of books I'd love to read. I'm glad to know about this publisher...  From their website:

Indij Readers is an innovative and unique, not-for-profit company that develops and publishes contemporary, Indigenous literacy materials for Indigenous and non Indigenous students learning to read and write. Indij Readers Ltd is listed on the Australian Register of Cultural Organisations and donations to Indij Readers are tax deductible.

Indij Readers For Big Fullas and Little Fullas is a collection of literacy acquisition classroom stories, accompanying teachers’ guides and other support materials (CD/audio, VHS/DVD film). The collection comprises stories from urban and rural communities around NSW and Victoria.

The aim of Indij Readers’ stories is twofold: to help students learn to read; and to encourage and support teachers to explore with their students, contemporary Indigenous perspectives and issues, and thus progress Reconciliation in Australia. The stories deal in a relaxed and often amusing way with issues that affect the lives of all children: culture, family, self esteem, pride, setting goals and working toward them, good health, humour, tolerance and school attendance.
Their authors and illustrators are from Indigenous communities in Australia. Wanja, One Smart Dog is written by Aunty Barbara Stacey and illustrated by Adam Hill. You can read their bios here. Reading bios of other authors and illustrators there increases my interest in Indij Readers.  

As I started looking into the controversy over the book, I learned that Wanja was a real dog. He lived in "The Block" --- a neighborhood in downtown Sydney --- with the author, Aunty Barbara Stacey. In 2008, a documentary was made about the Block. You can view the trailer here. (Like the cover of the book, I'm having trouble with this upload!!!)

According to Pearne, parents thought the book is inappropriate because it teaches kids that police are bad. We would agree, I think, that we want children to view police as good, but, who is the 'we' that we are talking about? I hesitate to create binaries, but, there's ample data about police, racism, racial profiling... 

In the video and the picture book, Wanja chases police vans because they brought police into the neighborhood---police who harassed the indigenous people, including children, in the Block. That is what anyone wants a dog to do, right? Protect us and our children from those who threaten us?

Do read Pearne's article. He provides a lot of history and context that push us to think carefully about things that on the surface seem clear cut. I want a copy of Wanja (order it from the Indig Readers website) and I plan to teach the book, coupling it with Peane's article. The book is an important one for all of us.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Images of Indigenous People in Shakespeare and Children's Literature

Last week I was in Stratford, Ontario at the Shakespeare Festival. We saw The Tempest. I can't recall seeing it before, but I had a vague idea of Caliban and who he is in the play...

When he came onstage, however, I couldn't help but notice his resemblance (in this production) to the ways that American Indians are depicted in the Newbery award winner, The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds, published in 1941.

Here's the page from the book. The illustrations are by Paul Lantz.

And here's Caliban, Stratford, 2010. (Photo from Robyn's Review)


This moment is important to my study of the ways that indigenous peoples have been portrayed in children's books, both in the present day (as in The Matchlock Gun) and in the past.... (Elsewhere, I've written about the ways that John Amos Comenius depicted American Indians as devil-worshippers in his Orbis Pictus, published in 1657.) 

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in the early 1600s. Caliban is written as a monster. Shakespeare describes his mother as a witch and as a "blue-ey'd hag" who gave birth to Caliban, "a freckled whelp" who was "not honour'd with a human shape." My cursory research indicates there's been a wide range of interpretation of the character. What was Shakespeare thinking of when he created that character?

Was his Caliban informative to Paul Lantz when he created the Indians in The Matchlock Gun? On the other hand, did the costume person for The Tempest we saw see Luntz's Indians?! Course, neither is likely, but the similarities between the two is striking. Indigenous peoples, less than human... Sadly, infuriatingly, outrageously persistent.