Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Return of the Native American Playmobil -UpdatedMay29

*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.  
Playmobil®s first releases in 1974 - Indians theme 1/4

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 - Native American Camp with Totem Pole #5247

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


  1. I always feel a little uncomfortable with the pilgrim story (or Columbus Day) because- let's face it- history is biased and so much of their culture gets overlooked and stereotyped. But I want my kids to know about them- I don't want my fear about saying the wrong thing to keep me from educating them Great post, Taylor!

  2. I was surprised at the name when I saw that Smithsonian museum, too. I didn't find the exhibits as fascinating as the First Peoples ethnology exhibits at the Royal British museum in Victoria, BC, but at least there you can find some of the most interesting food on the national mall.

  3. Actually, most Native Americans prefer to be identified by their tribal/nation group first: Ute, Cherokee, Pueblo, etc. Even better to drill down to the group within the nation.

    Two great resources: American Indians in Children's Literature and Oyate, both of whom really emphasize that "playing Indian" either way would not be considered respectful. You might want to see if they have a take on these new sets.

    1. Yes, I was disappointed that Playmobil still labels the sets as Native American rather than the specific tribe.

    2. And, yes I know that most Native Americans prefer to be identified by their tribes. Which is why it was one of my two tips for teaching your children. It's tricky though with the Playmobil sets because they are not associated with a specific tribe.

  4. Thanks, Stacy, for pointing readers of this blog to my site.

    The post itself (above) says that Playmobile sets show how some tribal peoples used to dress. That isn't quite correct. Some tribes wore feathered headdresses, not all, so the use of 'some' is correct, but the problem is with the past tense 'used to.' Regalia is still worn for specific purposes.

    As to the accuracy of "Tonto" as played by Depp in the film, the use of the word 'accurate' or any form thereof doesn't even apply.

    And Stacy is correct: "playing Indian" is stereotypical and inappropriate.

  5. If you want your kids to know about who we are, start with Cynthia Leitich Smith's JINGLE DANCER instead of toys or long-ago-romantic stories that gloss over truth.

    I've got a list of picture books you could use:

    1. Debbie--we would love you to do a guest post. You seem to have a lot of knowledge and strong opinions. Please write us a post on how we can teach our preschoolers and kindergartners about Native American's in a way that you would be okay with. Just remember we are busy Mom's chasing after young children with short attention spans.

    2. In the 1990s I wrote an short piece for the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. It is in the public domain, which means you can put it on your site.

      You could also take a look at a short piece I did for the National Council of Teachers of English:

    3. I love that piece on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. I actually found it several months ago, and looked for it but couldn't find it when I was writing this post. So thanks for linking to it. I love those suggestions. They are very helpful and doable. In fact, that post has already been influential with how I discuss Native American's with my children.

  6. Thanks for your insight, Debbie- great resources! I do have to disagree with you on one point. I think toys are how kids learn... when I was little, my friend and I dressed her dolls in Pioneer garb when we learned about our Mormon pioneer ancestors... we learned through play and it made that history come alive. American Girl Dolls also have made many dolls who have helped girls become interested in history and other cultures. It is a fine line between making a caricature out of a culture and learning through play, but I think it can be done respectfully.

  7. I don't know, RoryJean... the power differentials beneath the play itself make it terribly risky.

    Do you also have toys so the kids can play slave/slave master as you teach them about slavery?

    Do you have toys so kids can play Jew/Hilter so you can teach them about the Holocaust?

    In both cases, the people being used as toys would obviously not like the toys, and, in both cases, we know there's more to either group than just slavery or the internment camps, so let's play that out a bit. How would you use the toy Black or toy Jew?

    1. I appreciate your insight--and obviously you know way more than I do. Dropping the "Hilter Bomb" seems a little unwarranted though. There is no power differential in what is being discussed here. We are just playing with toys that are supposed to look like historical Native Americans--not cowboys and Indians. As I mentioned, I am trying to do better than I did as a kid.

      It seems to me that you are saying you would prefer my kids to not know about Native Americans than to play with these toys. Is that a fair statement? Just curious.

    2. I meant--prefer my kids not to know ANYTHING about Native Americans than to play with these toys.

    3. Hi Taylor,

      I want your kids to have solid information about American Indians. I suggested an excellent book you could read to them, and I pointed you to a list of recommended books, and an article by a sociologist about toy Indians.

      You say you're not going to let your kids play Indian. Instead, they're going to "play American Indian with confidence." I'll pose another question. What is that "American Indian" they're going to play "with confidence."? By that, I mean what tribe? And, since you're NOT going to play cowboys and Indians, I'd like to know exactly what they're going to play.

      What sources are you using to develop the play?

      Some thoughts: In the toy sets you show above, there are items from several different tribes. That is a common mistake. The people who made/make tipis do not also make totem poles. The people who live in adobe dwellings did not/do not use canoes.

    4. um . . . my kids "play Indian" the same way they play ancient Egyptian. They set up the sets and then pretty much just play family. And as questions arise we get books from the library about specific things so we can learn about that historical setting.

      I knew this post would get a lot of attacks. But I stand by it. I think people like me--who know no Native Americans but are well-meaning--do not dare teach their kids about the American Indians. We are too afraid of making a mistake and getting attacked. Heck, who can blame them? Within 24 hours posting my fumbling attempt--you suggested that I was such a horrible mother that I would let me kids play Hitler and Jew.

      And I guess in a sense, I do let my kids "play Jew". Every Hanukkah, we get out our dreidls and make latkes. I am sure our play is not perfect and may make some Jewish people cringe but I don't think the correct answer is to not dare discuss the Jewish culture with my children.

      As for your suggested reading, I did go to your blog and articles. And I will see if I can check out some of your recommended readings. but you are lucky you are talking to me. Most mom's I know do not have the time or inclination to wade through condescending scholarly articles to glean how they should approach this topic with their children. So again, I ask you--you would prefer children to not even know Native American's exist than to play with a "Native American Set" with artifacts from different tribes (mistakes I already was aware of)?

    5. I'm sorry you felt attacked, Taylor.

      In answer to your question, why does it have to be either/or? Your question suggests that you have two choices:

      1) Teach kids about American Indians using stereotypical toy sets
      2) Don't teach kids about American Indians at all

      It seems to me that you have other choices.

      You can start by selectively using children's books to teach kids accurate information that American Indians.

      You might decide to completely ignore teaching your kids about American Indians, but they're going to pick up all sorts of stereotypical information that they'll find all around them from many sources: the TV shows they watch, the products they see in the grocery and toy store, Indian-themed birthday parties and costumes, and a lot of the books they read, too.

      I quit teaching first grade to be a stay-at-home mom, too, for three years. I wanted to give my daughter the very best that I could. When I started graduate school, I moved away from our reservation to Illinois. Because it was graduate school, my classmates were from around the world. I said some really stupid, embarrassing things to them, based on my ignorance. But, I listened, and I learned, and I changed what I said and did and thought.

      Again, I'm sorry you felt attacked. You absolutely have good intentions. You recognized the problems in things you did when you were a kid. it'd be cool if, rather than use those toys, you set them aside, read JINGLE DANCER and Bruchac's story about the Milky Way to your kids instead.

      You have more choices than the two you put forth.


    6. No worries, I was expecting to be attacked. I know you as well have good intentions and I really do appreciate your expertise. I have already put the recommended books on hold at the our library.

      I agree that i have more choices than the two I put forth but my point is that as imperfect as it may be, for most busy parents, those two choices are the most realistic.

      In my own parenting, toys spark interests and that interest leads to research. I try and follow my children's lead. They are not typically interested in facts until a toy as intrigued them. Then we go into research mode. I am happy to have the playmobil sets in our home because they start the discussion and interest. For us, they seem to be a good starting off point. I'll let you know how the books work.

      and the point of my original post is that because everyone is being so careful to be PC, until we bought the playmobil set, my children had not been exposed to American indians by ANY OTHER SOURCE. They'd never seen an Indian toy, or seen one referenced on a TV store. We'd never been to an Indian party or seen an Indian costume. And when I realized that, I felt like in the hopes of being PC, my children were missing out on beautiful and important cultures.

  8. A colleague has an excellent article about playing Indian. He's Native, and a sociologist. I quoted from it in my post about INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD:

    1. I read Indian in the Cupboard in as kid and I remember loving it because it helped break down stereotypes about the Native Americans. The POINT of the book is that the children learn the stereotypes were wrong and that fighting causes real pain, it is not just a game. I do not think it is fair to attack the opening pages, when they are just setting up the stereotype that is going to be broken down through the text. I am sure the author did it imperfectly and that there were many cringe worthy stereotypes throughout the book that would be perfectly fair to critique. But the opening paragraphs were that way on purpose.

  9. Debbie- I definitely see your point, and like I said, it is a fine line between making a caricature out of a culture and learning through play... definitely don't think slave/master or hitler/jew would be appropriate. There is an American Girl doll with a slave story:

    I appreciate that they didn't gloss over this part of history but gave that doll a voice and a story. We need more tools for knowing how to teach these things (and if a doll like this helps spark that discussion I don't think I would discount it). I have felt paralyzed when trying to talk to my kids about race and history because I want to do it right- with respect and honoring those cultures and people, but sometimes it seems like people simply avoid the topic completely rather than risk doing it the wrong way.

  10. Also- I am so glad that we have a Native American voice in this discussion. Thanks Debbie.

  11. I think the doll with a book (discussion tool) attached is much different than a Playskool set--mostly because of developmental stage at which an American Girl doll is given (elementary school) vs. Playskool (toddlers).

  12. What an interesting perspective... I majored in Latin American Cultural Studies with an emphasis on colonization in college, so I spent time studying colonization of North America as well. My school was very liberal so the perspective was more Howard Zinn.
    I love sharing the story of Thanksgiving and Columbus with my 9 yr. old daughter, although it does not paint a pretty picture of the Europeans. I love that I can teach her history as I learned it (I think of it as accurate although I'm sure everyone thinks their version is correct).
    I'm happy that her school has not sugar coated the arrival of the white man to North and South America and she is learning how native cultures were wiped out. I think it's important to know your history so that you have a better understanding of the present.