North American Indians: a step by step guide to "playing Indian"

In American Indian, books, children's literature, Navajo, playing indian, scholastic, sioux, tlingit by Adrienne K.7 Comments

My friend Katie is currently in her first year of teaching 4th grade on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota (go Katie!), and she sent me a scanned copy of this ridiculous book that was in her classroom library. I’ll let her give the context:

“I finally started going through my classroom’s library and was pretty appalled to find this book (along with the typical Indian the Cupboard and Little House on the Prairie-esque books).  I teach 4th grade on the Rosebud Reservation; 100% of my students are Lakota.  The book purports to give a history of Native Americans and a guide to Native crafts, but what it ends up being is a veritable handbook for white kids to “play Indian.”  All the photos are of white kids dressed up as Indians!  I can’t find one picture (other than the historical ones, of course) of a Native American child.  Even more disturbingly, the descriptions make it sound as if these white kids are authentic representations of Indian clothing, etc. The worst thing is that this book is (now was, ugh) in the library of a classroom full of Lakota children.  It’s like hey kids, these pictures of white kids can teach you how to be Indian better than your own people!”

After the jump, scanned selections of the book. Prepare yourself, it’s pretty bad. (All images can be clicked for a bigger version)

First thing of note: the title page says “Consultant: Anne Armitage, BA–The American Museum in Britain. So, there weren’t any qualified “consultants” who were actually Native? or I don’t know, maybe in AMERICA? Also, this is published by Scholastic–usually a well known and trusted name in children’s books. 
This page talks about “Indian clothing”. Everything is in past tense (as is the whole book), and it has instructions on how to make a “war bonnet” along with a historic photograph. 
“Hairstyles were important ways to look different but still fit in with tribal traditions. Some groups smeared their hair with mud and sculpted it into different shapes.” Um, really? 
The descriptions of the tribes (not to mention the accompanying images) make me so upset. The past tense and historic descriptions would leave any child thinking there was no way a Nez Perce, Chumash, Tlingit, or Navajo person still lived today. 

Katie pointed out that the caption with the boy reads: “Plains warriors carried spears and hide shield and wore elaborate headdresses for ceremonial occasions”, implying that he IS a “plains warrior”.

More tribal descriptions–the description of the seminole is especially interesting. It’s mostly about North American settlers and influence rather than the tribe. 
look at the boy’s stance. Sitting “Indian style”.
A couple of things: I like the fact the “Plains Warrior” and the “Seminole” are playing stickball–complete disregard for regionality of the game. Also, the one reference to traditions continuing today mentions that a form of this game is still played today “called lacrosse.” Not that tribes still play the traditional form, which they do. 
“Early European Explorers and settlers tried to write down the sounds of Indian words, but some could not accurately be conveyed using our alphabet.”
The caption reads “a sioux boy and a nez perce girl would have been able to speak to each other using sign language”. 
So, overall, I’m a bit at a loss for words. I can’t believe scholastic decided this was a great book to promote “hands on learning,” and that someone decided this was a good book to put in a 4th grade reservation classroom. I mean, this is straight up, by definition cultural appropriation. 
I also just googled the book, and found it on a few “recommended book” lists for teachers (gross), and found that there is an entire series of books that teach kids how to “play history”: Egypt, Rome, Stone Age…and American Indians (completely the same, right?). It appears to be still in print. 
Another example of placing Natives in the historic past, of melding of hundreds of distinct tribal traditions, of playing Indian, of not allowing Indians to be “experts” on ourselves, the “otherization” of American Indians…and about every other issue I’ve dealt with on this blog. So frustrating. 
Major kudos to Katie for cleaning out her classroom library, her students are lucky to have her. 
(Thanks Katie!)


  1. Virtue

    This is really awful. I don’t really go for the burning of books, but I think I could make an exception here. I can’t believe it’s still in print! Thanks (to you and Katie) for the post and deconstruction.

  2. Katie

    I haven’t decided what to do with the book yet. Any thoughts? I’ve considered burning it, throwing it away and hoping no one retrieves it, keeping it to exemplify cultural appropriation at its worst…

  3. m Andrea

    Oh no don’t burn it. It’s helpful to have an example of racism, I mean, if you had simply burnt it then the readers here would never had known about current wacked out attitudes.

    Were there any good books in the classroom for the kids at all?

  4. Ilsa

    I teach 3-5th grade and keep a collection of books like this to show the students how to identify racism, sexism, and ableism. The images are helpful in understanding what stereotypes and tokenism are. We then go on a “treasure hunt” through the library and put warning labels (stickers) on books. That way I know that if the kids just come across a book like this without adult supervision, they will have a critical eye and be less likely to internalize racist ideas about themselves or make assumptions about others.

  5. AidenPants

    *shudder* This is awful, and I think I recognize it from my childhood. Truly horrifying.

    Great idea, Ilsa, I love it!

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