The Indian in the Cupboard Themes
The main themes in The Indian in the Cupboard are racial prejudice and stereotypes, race and media, and personhood.
- Racial prejudice and stereotypes: Through Little Bear and Boone, the novel emphasizes the inaccuracy of stereotypes and the ill-founded nature of prejudice.
- Race and media: The story highlights the role of media, such as the Western film that causes conflict between Boone and Little Bear, in shaping race narratives.
- Personhood: Omri comes to understand that Little Bear is a real, fully human person who, though very different from him, is worthy of respect and independence.
Racial Prejudice and Stereotypes
In part, The Indian in the Cupboard deals with the problems of blunt racializing; to “racialize” means to emphasize what one thinks someone is or what someone should be according to their racial category. The most prominent perpetrator of this in the story is Boone, who calls Little Bear various racial epithets, despite them sometimes having no real basis. For example, he calls Little Bear “dirty,” but as Omri points out, Boone is actually far more averse to hygiene than Little Bear is. Interestingly, Boone also suffers from his own ideas about what people should be. Though he tries to assert his image as a masculine cowboy from time to time, readers receive brief glimpses of the fact that Boone is actually fragile, often cowardly, and easily moved to tears.
The author also tries to go into some detail on the specificities of Little Bear’s Native American heritage and what is or is not historically accurate. An example of this is how Omri learns from Little Bear that not all Indians are friendly with each other—they belong to different tribes with different customs and symbols. Another example is the idea of a blood pact and the fact that it did not originate in Native American culture, contrary to Omri’s belief.
Race and Media
When Omri finds out that Little Bear has scalped multiple soldiers, he becomes uncomfortable around Little Bear, seeing him as potentially dangerous. However, when he reads about Native American history in the library, he later decides that “the English and French were probably no better, killing each other . . . as often as they could.” Omri develops some fairness in judging these various instances of violence, implicitly understanding from his reading that his fear of Little Bear may be unfounded.
The novel also suggests that common ideas about race are strongly shaped by the media. For example, when Omri talks about the blood pact he saw Indians perform in a movie, Little Bear denies having knowledge of such a custom among his people. In another instance, Boone and Little Bear both react strongly to a Western film they watch on TV. Boone cheers as he watches the cowboys defeat multiple Indians, as it reaffirms Boone’s sense of superiority in being the historical victor. As he puts it, “Let the best man win!” Understandably, Little Bear takes great offense at this, and he uses his bow and arrow to shoot Boone in the chest.
The book traces Omri’s moral development as he comes to understand the reality of personhood—even in people as tiny as Little Bear and Boone. He first understands this when he talks to Little Bear and finds out that the Indian is most likely a “real” person, torn from the past. The foreignness of Little Bear evokes curiosity, admiration, and respect in Omri. Although he is curious to know more about Little Bear, he is careful and respectful enough to ask before touching him. He even goes out of his way to fulfill Little Bear’s needs and desires. When the key goes missing, and thwarting Omri’s attempt at providing Little Bear with a wife, Omri realizes that he would have liked to grant Little Bear’s wishes—not for the mere fun of it, but because he simply wants to make Little Bear happy.
In contrast, Patrick takes a long time to understand the gravity of the situation. His intense curiosity gets the better of him, and to Omri’s distress, Patrick even threatens to expose their secret if Omri doesn’t oblige his personal desire for amusement. Patrick brings Boone to life without Omri’s permission and...
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is often scolded by Omri to be more delicate in how he handles Boone and Little Bear. Even when he is pushed down by a girl in the cafeteria and a panicked Omri asks him whether Boone and Little Bear are okay, Patrick only replies with vague disinterest. Over time, however, Patrick comes to better understand Little Bear and Boone.
It is worth noting that the theme of seeing other people as “real” mirrors the problem of racial stereotyping: the problem of Patrick or Omri understanding the figures’ humanity is the same as the problem of Boone and Little Bear properly understanding each other. When these characters succeed in seeing one another as “real,” the possibility of peace and true understanding becomes real as well.