*I knew this post would inspire controversy, but the first round of comments has made me realize I wasn't as clear as I could have been and that there were suggestions and approaches I should add. The post has been updated to reflect this. Big thanks to Debbie over at American Indians in Children's Literature for taking the time to comment, suggest resources and teach us.
When I was little, I remember spending hours playing Indians with my Grandmother's Playmobil. I would painstakingly set up each Tepee and headdress. The Indian moms would wear their children on their backs, the little babies carefully holding their dolls and I would put tomahawks and bows in the hand of each brave. Sometimes, I would also let a girl hold an ax (I was a budding feminist after all). When I was done setting everything up my cousin would come barging in and knock everything down with his Cowboys or He-Man or GI Joe or Dinosaurs and the game would be over. As one-sided as it sounds, I absolutely loved it.
As I got older, I cringed when I thought of those games. I hated all the stereotypes we had based our play on and realized how few tribes the tepees and totem poles really represented. When I was old enough to have kids of my own, and noticed that Playmobil no longer made the Indian line and I thought that made sense. Way to finally be PC, Playmobil. It's about time. It turns out they phased out the Indian line in the late 1990s.
But then one Thanksgiving, it happened. I was telling my children (5 and 3) the story of why we celebrate Thanksgiving. Because I am an over the top P-SAHM, I had prepared beforehand by looking up the actual name of the Indian tribe (Wampanoag) so that I would be PC and respectful. And as I was trying to explain the whole thing, it dawned on me that my children had never heard the term Indian or Native American before. Everyone we know tries their best to be PC. Our one chance was Thanksgiving, but in preschool, no one dared mention Native Americans. Thanksgiving has become a day to give thanks without a historical context. Not all bad of course (it is a tricky story to tell in a culturally sensitive way), but my kids had no idea that Native Americans existed, not in the past and not in modern times. I felt like in a quest to be PC, the pendulum had swung too far and people were afraid to even mention Native Americans.
That thought made me sad. I remembered my childhood play again. But this time I wasn't so hard on myself. I remembered the awe and respect I felt for the Native Americans. I remember the reverence for nature. The tiptoeing through the woods. Sure, our play wasn't perfect and yes, it was clearly stereotypical but I realized I would rather have my children KNOW about Native Americans than not know. And children learn through play. In our family, my children's toys inspire interest and that interest leads to researching and learning facts and figures. I feel like I am doing parenting right when one of my children runs over to me and asks if we can check out a book to learn about X.
So . . when I noticed Playmobil had started releasing a Native American line again, I bought it opening day. I was disappointed that Playmobil called them "Native Americans" rather than a specific tribe but I was excited to have toys in my home that could inspire my children's interest.
Playmobil is not the only one braving Native American play sets. With the Lone Ranger movie coming up, Lego has released Native American sets too.
As excited as I am that it seems to be starting to be okay to talk about American Indians again. I wanted to make sure to do it right. So I did a little research. First I found out that according to a 1995 Census Bureau Survey (there is not more recent data) 50% of American Indians prefer the term American Indians, while 37% prefer Native Americans. I had no idea that both were acceptable. I thought Native American was the only PC term but it turns out that even the Smithsonian calls their museum, the National Museum of the American Indian.
I also found two wonderful articles for discussing discussing Native Americans with your kids, here and here. You should go check them out but here are the tips I found the most useful.
- Make sure your kids know that Native Americans are alive today and that they dress and act like us. They are not just historical figures. Point out that the Playmobil and Lego figures show how people of some tribes used to live and dress but that they are not accurate. For example, no tribe that lived in Tipees also made Totem poles.
- Talk about different tribes with your children. Make sure your children know that talking about the specific tribes is preferable to the generalized "Native American".
- Point out that not all American Indians lived in Tepees or built Totem Poless or paddled canoes etc.
- Make sure to read books to your children that show American Indians in modern times as well as historical times. I have yet to read these books but I have them on hold at our local library. And I am grateful for the recommendation.
Most sites also talked about how headdresses and feather tend to be sacred in many Native American tribes and it is not respectful to dress up with those items.
So there you have it, now you can let your child play with
American Indian toys with confidence--okay, apparently not with confidence. As the comments below indicate this is a very complicated and controversial issue. I stand by my post though--it is better to do the best you can to teach your kids, than to be too afraid to broach the topic.