From NPR today comes a bit of linguistic history relevant to all Native Studies units. The History Behind the Phrase ‘Don’t be an Indian giver’ is a recap of the attitudes and perceptions behind the growth of this phrase.
It is a metaphor of the deeply visual sort. For me it is impossible to hear or read Indian giver without a cartoonish mental image coming to mind. By the way, I have never seen a cartoon that flatters or enobles a Native subject. If you want to refresh your memory of what humorists have done with the phrase, visit The Indian Giver on Cagle’s site, which features Elizabeth Warren, or this commentary on a recent cartoon, or just do a Google Image search for Indian Giver.
Discuss this joke with your students: Spell Indian tent with two letters. (TP) Why is this not funny?
Additional phrases to listen for: on the warpath, bury the hatchet, squaw, pow wow, smoke a peace pipe, war dance, happy hunting grounds, etc. If you hear these in the classroom or on the playground, respond. Clarify the intended and the actual meaning. Explain that other words can be used to express the same sentiment or meaning. It is hard for children to understand that language used casually can express an attitude or cast an insult on a culture, especially if the student has no direct contact with that culture.
I am glad that the NPR article also reminds us of the offensive song Indian Giver. I included the lyrics in my list of stereotypical songs, published in ’07. I had hoped this list would be “old news” by now, but today Sirius radio played Tim McGraw’s Indian Outlaw, reminding me that stereotypes linger on because they are insensitively repeated and these repetitions fall on young ears and seep into young sensibilities.
With Columbus Day coming up, perhaps it is a good time to let stereotypes enter into your classroom conversation. Feel free to use my resources, published at Indian Stereotypes. I also have a collection of books, largely for children, that should be on the “no” list for schools and libraries, and a representational collection of toys and other objects. They are good discussion starters for upper elementary and middle school classrooms. Both collections can be borrowed by Maine teachers for the cost of postage.
There are online, by the way, some classroom lessons for discussing Columbus Day from the Native perspective. Use them with caution. Those from Native studies programs or Native schools or ed. programs are best. And by all means consider an oral reading of Dorris’ Morning Girl, which is sure to provoke discussion. For older elementary (and up) students, the short picture book A Coyote Columbus Story would be a good choice, along with a reading of Durham’s poem “Columbus Day” (find it here with Debbie Reese’s commentary). For those wishing to meet a CCSS standard as well, read from Columbus’ journals (begin 13 October), The Dawes Act (find it with commentary here, and a slightly different commentary here), or perhaps use my own text-based lesson on The Penobscot Land Transfer of 1833 (scroll down the page to find the materials. Appropriate for Maine MS and HS). If I were in a middle or upper school classroom, I would also share the passages from Devil in the White City that describe Will Bill’s show and its many Indians. The National Museum of the American Indian, Fall 2013 issue, contains an article “Taino in the Vatican” that explores another aspect of Columbus’ legacy, the lives of the Taino who he “captured” and brought to the Queen. The author, Joseph Barreiro, himself a Taino, has also written a well-received novel (Taino: A Novel) that tells the story from the perspective of one of the captives. Options for meeting Columbus head on this year are many.
It is important that we not overlook the darker history of what must surely be called Indian Taking: slavery, reservations, destruction of family, land, culture, sovereign rights, habitat (which continues to this day), the power of negative stereotypes – all of these must be part of the Columbus (and Thanksgiving) Day discussion.