Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Of Thee I Sing: A Semiotic Review by Scott Andrews

Scott Andrews has been so gracious so many times as a guest poster on The Weekly Rader, that we are considering renaming the blog The Bi-Weekly Andrews  Or, perhaps, the Don't Dread Scott.  We'll work on that and get back to you.

In our ongoing interest in the intersection of politics and early childhood education, we feature a particularly smart review of President Barack Obama's new children's book. In keeping with the focus of TWR, Andrews also considers the semiotics of this text.

President Barack Obama’s new book for children, Of Thee I Sing:  A Letter to My Daughters, made headlines lately – it is more accurate to say that the Fox News headline made headlines.  His book briefly discusses several famous figures from American history, presenting them as heroes.  Among those featured is Sitting Bull, the famous leader of the Lakota.  Fox News caught a good round of criticism for its “fair and balanced” headline about the book: “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.”

When it was pointed out that Sitting Bull did not kill General Custer, Fox News revised the headline to say “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Defeated U.S. General.”  Never mind that Sitting Bull was too old to participate in the Battle of Little Big Horn. 

There was much snickering from the Left at the contortions Fox News is capable of in finding ways to criticize Obama.  What I haven’t heard yet is discussion of the image accompanying the passage about Sitting Bull.

Illustrator Loren Long portrays Abraham Lincoln and Billie Holiday in a fashion reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton, in warm colors and with curved, stylized figures.  We see Lincoln and Holiday among other humans, doing things they are famous for – speaking and singing.  We see Jackie Robinson swinging a bat.  We see Albert Einstein staring into the heavens.  We see Cesar Chavez speaking to migrant workers.

However, Sitting Bull is literally the Earth itself.  His cheeks and nose are hills.  His eyes are two bison.  His eyebrows are trees.  His forehead is an orange sunset.  Although Sitting Bull is described as healing the “broken hearts and broken promises” of his people, we do not see any Indians.

Seeing the image of Sitting Bull as Real Estate is surprising in this context.  A book like Of Thee I Sing is intended to remind us of famous, admirable people from American history – to make them visible to us again.  It is odd, then, that in this act of remembrance, Sitting Bull is not present.  In the book’s time machine, we travel back to see Abraham Lincoln speaking to his fellow Americans.  In the time machine of our imagination, the book takes us back to see Billie Holiday singing, perhaps in a night club, among musicians.  It is unclear that we have entered the time machine to visit Sitting Bull.  Are we looking at his spirit in today’s landscape?  Or have we traveled back to the western Plains in the 1800s?  If so, where is Sitting Bull?  Where are the people he led and healed?

This image is created in the tradition of “The Vanishing Indian.”  American mythology has been deeply conflicted about the original inhabitants of the continent since Day One of Contact.  Americans have hated Indians and they have loved Indians.  But, strangely, in both cases the Indian disappears from view.

The side of the American psyche that hated Indians wanted to clear them out of the way of westward expansion, even if that meant killing them all.  Thus the Indian became, for many decades, the ubiquitous villain of American popular fiction and Hollywood Westerns.  In contrast to the bloodthirsty savage, the American hero could look that much more heroic – and could be justified in killing Indians. 

The side of the American psyche that loved Indians romanticized and envied them, and yet still imagined the Indians absent from the path of westward expansion.  In American literature, sometimes the Indians disappeared voluntarily, because they did not want to live like their new neighbors.  Sometimes the Indians disappeared tragically, perhaps from disease or even from hearts broken by the damage done to their communities.  This passing was lamented by some Americans, and it was sometimes used to critique the American greed or violence or prejudice that so harassed Indians.  But hardly ever in the American imagination did this critique result in the Indian not disappearing.

Sometimes what the American psyche hated about the Indian was also what it loved.  The Indian Hater oftentimes justified his hatred by seeing the American as civilized and the Indian as savage.  The task of transforming the landscape into European-style agricultural and urban landscapes was seen as a process of conquering nature.  Since the original inhabitants of the land needed to be removed before the land could be transformed, the Haters equated Indians with the land or nature.  Both needed to be conquered.  They were not merely obstacles to expansion, but as “nature” they were the opposite of “civilization.”  In his survey of Indians in American literature, Savagism and Civilization Roy Harvey Pearce says that the Indian became an important symbol “for what he showed civilized men they were not and must not be” (5). 

Meantime, the Indian Lover also equated Indians with the land or nature, but this time that was seen as a good thing.  Many times the Indian Lover had grown tired of his own society.  Like the Hater, the Lover associated “civilization” with European-style society, but unlike the Hater he saw “civilization” as corrupt or decadent.  Pearce describes this as a type of “primitivism -- the belief that other, simpler societies were somehow happier than one’s own” (136).  The Indian Lover saw “nature” as the opposite of “civilization,” as pure and noble.  He saw the Indian as the Noble Savage, and in so doing he also equated the Indian with nature.

However, despite his admiration for Indians, the Lover could not bring himself to live with them permanently or imagine a role for them in his society.  Apparently, just because you love something doesn’t mean you want to live with it.  And so even those writers who loved Indians rarely ever ended a story with the Indian characters still around – they either died or faded into the landscape, headed further West, making room for the tide of Americans.

I do not know Loren Long, but I imagine he really likes Indians, or at least the idea of Indians.  And I bet he is a very nice man and a talented artist.  But depicting Sitting Bull not as a human talking to other humans (like Lincoln) or singing with other musicians (like Holiday) has implications beyond the artist’s intent.  It potentially relieves Long or his audience of depicting an uncomfortable truth – drawing the bodies of Indians whom we can guess will suffer and possibly die at the hands of American soldiers, who will become the victims of those “broken hearts and broken promises.”  The words beneath the image beg the question: Broken by whom?  As written and drawn, the audience gets to avoid uncomfortable answers.

Such an illustration also traps Sitting Bull in a non-human dimension. Unlike Lincoln or Holiday, Sitting Bull (and possibly by association every Indian) becomes a transcendent, supernatural being.  Not a human.

Of course, it is better to have an Indian in the book than not.  But it would be nice to have an Indian who lives on the ground like a human rather than in the ground like a specter or ghost.

Scott Andrews is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and he teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge.


  1. Thanks for this insightful review (which I will share widely).

    When you write -

    "Of course, it is better to have an Indian in the book than not."

    - I wonder whether it is really better to have an incomplete or a false image / coverage of an event than to have none at all.

    When Sitting Bull is portrayed as "an Indian who lives ... in the ground like a specter or ghost" which, as you say, reinforces the narrative of "The Vanishing Indian," and that image is not being called into question AT THE SAME TIME as it it presented, would this not be more harmful than if this narrative was not continually reinforced? If this is so, then it is NOT "of course, better to have an Indian in the book than not."

  2. This is one of the great questions--to be missing or mis-represented? I write about this issue a bit in my book.

  3. My daughter encountered the vanishing indian myth when doing her compulsory fourth grade "mission project." She did a short film, featuring three of our family friends who just happen to be Chumash, Pueblo, and Lakota respectively and oddly, still very much here and apparently not very good at being vanished. Her entire project focused on the attempt by the mission system to make indians go away (by converting them into quasi-taxpayers) and how that went for the indians. She finished her piece with pictures from a tomol paddle-out by local Chumash and that pretending the missions were some wonderful event in California history mocks our neighbors who are the survivors of that painful mark and who are very much still here and asked, what will your give-back be to those who were here first? What relationship will you have with First People?

    Not too shabby from a fourth grader. Maybe she should have been consulted for the Sitting Bull part of Mr. Obama's nice book. She could have told the story she opened with about the little girl who was threatened with guns and arrest by NPS rangers for taking a stone from her own sacred place, a stone her grandfather was helping her exchange for an upcoming ceremony. I know it made my daughter's class, parents and teachers pretty uncomfortable. So maybe Mr. Obama, or the publisher, wouldn't have been okay with that. Much safer to pretend the Lakota are all gone, eh? Ugh.

  4. Quasi-taxpayers. That's funny. :)

    Good question about whether being misrepresented is better than being absent. I guess I am trying to be diplomatic, and I am also thinking that a trace of presence can be built into a fuller presence perhaps more easily than can a total absence. But I could be wrong.

    Thanks for reading!

    And thanks to Dean for letting me play in his blog!

  5. Nice work regarding the image. Thanks for the insight.

    While not your topic of concern, I continue to wonder about the various chatter regarding Sitting Bull's participation in Battle of Little Big Horn. According to Obama's book, Sitting Bull "is most famous for his stunning victory in 1876 over Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn." (This passage appears on the unnumbered final page of the book, in the glossary of names.) Aside from applying Custer's brevetted rank, it seems that Fox may be relying on Obama as their source regarding Sitting Bull at Little Big Horn. So is Obama contorting some history here?

  6. Clarence, Thanks for answering a question I had myself. I thought Custer was a colonel and not a general at the time of Little Big Horn, but I didn't take the time to investigate.

  7. Hey Scott and Dean...

    I'll link to this post from my blog later today, pointing my readers to it and to the upcoming Native America Calling show about the book. They'll do a show on Dec 2nd (http://www.nativeamericacalling.com/).

    Re the question of representation vs no representation at all, it is a ubiquitous representation. Elizabeth Bird, a blogger at School Library Journal, asked her readers to submit their favorite novels. Analyzing the data, she came up with a Top 100. I analyzed that top 100 and found that 23 of the 100 include a word or phrase signaling "Indian" -- from words like "Honest Injun" to sitting "Indian" style. In the list of 100 only one book is meant to feature a Native character (Julie of the Wolves). Here's the link: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2010/04/portrayals-of-american-indians-in-sljs.html

  8. I listened (today) to the archived interview on Native America calling... Harlan spoke with Ernie LaPointe, great grandson of Sitting Bull.

    He said that he doesn't think Sitting Bull viewed himself as "American." And, he thinks that Sitting Bull would not have liked being praised alongside Washington and Lincoln, either. LaPointe specifically talked about Lincoln and the largest mass execution in the U.S. LaPointe also said Sitting Bull was not "Sioux" but Lakota. I'm working his interview into an update for my blog.

  9. It is my understanding that in native America beliefs, human beings are not separate from Nature, as they are in European religion. Human beings are part of the Earth, and related to all other living creatures. (In fact, even plants and rocks have spirit.)
    Perhaps it was this belief to which the artist was alluding in his drawing of Sitting Bull.