Last Updated on June 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1127
The Indian in the Cupboard is one of the best-known works by British children’s author Lynne Reid Banks. Since its original publication in 1980 by the publisher J. M. Dent, the novel has garnered many awards, such as the 1983 Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Award, the 1985 California Young Reader Medal, and the 1988 Massachusetts Children's Book Award. Due to the book’s popularity, Banks followed it with no less than four sequels: The Return of the Indian (1985), The Secret of the Indian (1989), The Mystery of the Cupboard (1993), and The Key to the Indian (1998).
Despite The Indian in the Cupboard’s beloved place in the canon of children’s literature, it warrants criticism for its portrayal of Native Americans. For example, Little Bear, Omri’s toy Indian which comes to life, is made to talk in a slow and broken form of English: “Little Bear fight like mountain lion! Take many scalps!” This manner of speaking reinforces the stereotype that Native Americans are illiterate and uncivilized. In reality, the Iroquois spoke many languages and had a functioning and civilized society of their own. While there are specific Iroquois speech patterns that were adapted to English, the manner of speaking ascribed to Little Bear in the novel is an infantilization of Native Americans. There is also little attention given to the historical accuracy of Little Bear’s and other Native American characters’ manner of dress, which points to a lack of research on Banks’ part.
Throughout history, the production of children’s toys has at times been shaped by bigotry and racial prejudice. Countless children’s dolls and figurines have been molded after insensitive misrepresentations of marginalized groups. Ultimately, the very premise of a “toy Indian” is rooted in imperialism, as the production of such toys stem from a trivialization of the lives and experiences of Native Americans. The very first scene of The Indian in the Cupboard attests to this, as Patrick explains that he is giving Omri his toy Indian because he doesn’t have a cowboy to pair it with. The violent relationship between cowboys and Indians, as reiterated in different forms of media throughout history, flaunts war and genocide as instruments of entertainment and play.
On the surface, the novel can be interpreted to be moral or even progressive—its overall lesson concerns mutual understanding and coming to terms with the reality of other people. Since the very premise of the novel is that a toy Indian is given life through magic, there is the opportunity to subvert and correct the stereotypes so often ascribed to Native Americans. This is encouraged by the fact that racial prejudice often stems from the refusal to see a certain group or individual as “real.” In this vein, however, The Indian in the Cupboard fails—while Little Bear is given worthwhile virtues such as courage and determination, he remains the stereotypical “noble savage.”
What is perhaps the most harmful thing about the novel is that Omri is a white English boy who is given control over the Native American characters—an uneven power dynamic on which the entirety of The Indian in the Cupboard is built. In fact, Little Bear sees Omri as a “Great Spirit” who is there to use his magic to provide for him. In his book Native Americans in Children's Literature, Canadian professor of children’s literature Jon C. Stott points out that the dynamic between Little Bear and Omri parallels that of a subjugated people and that of their “benevolent” oppressor. Stott draws on the title of chapter 6 of the novel to make his point:
“The Chief is Dead, Long Live the Chief,” symbolizes the imperialist, British point of view that subtly pervades all of The Indian in the Cupboard. It is an echo of the ceremonial phrase used at the time of the death of a British monarch and emphasizes the continuity of the traditions of British rule. While Omri may develop admirable moral qualities in his new comprehension of the integrity of individual human beings, he also develops the qualities of imperialistic, though benevolent, control of a subject people. At a time when Native peoples are rediscovering their traditions, developing pride in their cultural beliefs and achievements, and struggling to achieve the dignity of self-government and independence, The Indian in the Cupboard transmits unacceptable viewpoints and messages to young white and Native readers alike.
Such a parallel is problematic in a children’s novel, especially as it grooms white or non-Native children to accept the imperialist viewpoint that Native Americans are a savage people who require coddling and governance. While it is laudable how Omri eventually realizes that he has to set Little Bear and the others free, it is ultimately his power and individual agency which govern the figures’ lives.
To Banks’s credit, she attempted to make The Indian in the Cupboard an educational experience regarding Native Americans, as Omri reads about the Iroquois and even learns things about Iroquois culture from Little Bear. Omri also gains maturity after reflecting on the violence which has pervaded Little Bear’s life. Quickly learning to apply this maturity to his situation, he begins to look at his other toys in a more sober way—such as his paladin knight, whom he surmises as having likely murdered the “poor Saracens in Palestine.” This attempt to educate, however, is thwarted by the fact that the author remains largely blasé about the painful history between Native Americans and the first settlers. The novel presents a cartoonish and uncritical version of colonialist history, rendering the characters Little Bear and Boone as caricatures. Such insensitivity is particularly harmful because the “toys” from the novel are depicted as not merely plastic come to life, but real people uprooted from their respective time periods.
Even though The Indian in the Cupboard’s regressive views are in part due to the time period in which the novel was written, it is still important to challenge and hold such works accountable. Indigenous or marginalized groups should not be included in a work of literature simply to make it more colorful or exciting—their characters should also be accorded apt respect and dignity. Banks’s failure to be racially sensitive is made more problematic by the fact that she is an English author writing Native American characters—the same Indigenous peoples her ancestors persecuted and removed from their lands. At its core, The Indian in the Cupboard centers on a child’s first contact with a complicated and painful colonial history, and so should have been more sensitive to race relations. Fair representation and progressive messages matter, especially in a work of children’s literature—as these books take on the great responsibility of molding children’s values and outlook on the world.
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