Sunday, October 14, 2012

None of us lives in a teepee

Because I am a much better communicator in writing and because it really isn't the time and place to address racism in society between toddler gymnastics classes, I decided I would write a letter to Ella's gymnastics teacher (names below disguised, of course) expressing my concerns and my hope.

Here's the letter and the attachments:

Dear Ms. Coach,

I want to thank you so much for this wonderful gymnastics class. Of all the mommy-and-me activities that Ella and I participate in, we have the most fun here. I am very excited to see her develop her large motor skills and athleticism at THE GYM, not to mention her confidence and self-esteem as the Mission Statement notes. I look forward to our future at THE GYM.

I do have one concern though, and I am writing a letter to you about it because it’s a subject that can’t be easily addressed in a quick word between classes. As a former high school teacher, I know how valuable those few minutes are and do not want to intrude on your time.

Since I didn’t know the words to the song we’ve sung at the end of class each of the three times we’ve attended, I looked them up online. I did not find the version used at THE GYM, but I did find some disturbing information about the origin of the song, as well as the impact of the modernized lyrics on children today.

I thought I should share what I learned with you, because I am sure it hasn’t been considered in the selection of music in what seems like an innocent enough choice of songs. Please know that I am not at all accusing you or THE GYM of racism, I was just stricken to read that the song Ten Little Indians can be so hurtful to people and didn’t feel right not saying anything.

I am attaching a printout of some of the information I found. Given what I have learned, I do not feel comfortable with Ella learning this song because of the stereotypical images it conjures. I hope that we can sing a different song, instead. Please let me know your thoughts. You can email me, or call me, or speak with me next week, whatever is most convenient for you.

Best wishes,
Olaina Anderson

When I googled the song title, a Wikipedia entry was the first link to come up (that alone was surprising!). Here’s a passage and the link:

The original piece, then called "Ten Little Injuns", was written by songwriter Septimus Winner in 1868 for a minstrel show and was much more elaborate:
Ten little Injuns standin' in a line,
One toddled home and then there were nine;
Nine little Injuns swingin' on a gate,
One tumbled off and then there were eight.
One little, two little, three little, four little, five little Injun boys,
Six little, seven little, eight little, nine little, ten little Injun boys.
Eight little Injuns gayest under heav'n.
One went to sleep and then there were seven;
Seven little Injuns cuttin' up their tricks,
One broke his neck and then there were six.
Six little Injuns all alive,
One kicked the bucket and then there were five;
Five little Injuns on a cellar door,
One tumbled in and then there were four.
Four little Injuns up on a spree,
One got fuddled and then there were three;
Three little Injuns out on a canoe,
One tumbled overboard and then there were two.
Two little Injuns foolin' with a gun,
One shot t'other and then there was one;
One little Injun livin' all alone,
He got married and then there were none.[1]

The next passage is from an article by a Head Start teacher, Bernhard Michaelis, Founder, Native Child. It is called “Teaching Kids the Wonderful Diversity of American Indians: The awareness teachers and parents need to teach Head Start children about American Indians accurately and respectfully”.  (This article is reprinted from Children and Families, Vol.XVI No.4 , Fall 1997, the journal of the National Head Start Association. Children and Families is published quarterly for NHSA members.)

Inaccurate and often offensive representations of American Indians are deeply rooted in the American consciousness.

As a result, we have become desensitized to terminology and imagery that is offensive to American Indians. For example, we might not think it's odd to ask our kids to line up Indian file. And we might not see any reason our kids shouldn't dress up and play Indians.
American Indian children who frequently encounter stereotypical images of their cultures are hindered in developing a feeling of pride in their heritage and a healthy self-image. When asked, there are American Indian preschoolers who will say they are not Indians. Why? Because they have already learned from popular movies and cartoons that Indians wear feathers and face paint and live in tipis and carry tomahawks. Preschoolers don't look like that, so they don't consider themselves Indians.

Young children believe what they see and hear. As Head Start teachers, we are in an excellent position to teach children factual information about American Indians and at the same time dispel any myths or stereotypes that have entered our classrooms.

This passage is from an article called “RACISM & STEREOTYPING: The Affects On Our Children On Our Future” which I found at

The song is an Indian annihilation song that the Pioneers sang to their children to soothe their fears. If you remember the song, they count up and then they count backwards until there is only one Indian boy left. Today most people do not even know about the hidden message of eradicating the Indian people in the song; however, this song still plants seeds of racism and stereotyping in the minds of our children. This song must be stopped from its use in schools today!

When my kindergarten teacher showed the class how to war whoop like an Indian, she was further stereotyping Indian people as being war-like, and she was embedding the seeds of racism by having children think that Indians are savages. The image of the Indian pumping one hand over their mouth while the other hand is clasping a war club is a very common Indian stereotype, which needs to be stopped in our schools. I can remember teachers, in later grades, telling the class to stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians, as I sat quietly at my desk. I remember how these stinging words made me feel, for it hurt my self-image and my feelings.

The letter was one page, the attachment two. I took a thank you note card from my stash of stationery, wrote "We love gymnastics!" on it with a green Sharpie, and let Ella color the heart with a pink highlighter. 

Justin came to gymnastics that day--a surprise for us girls, who were only expecting to see him in the afternoon. He watched the class (only one parent is allowed to participate, to keep the gym from getting too crowded). At the end, I couldn't bring myself to sit in the circle with Ella to sing the song, but I let her join the class while I watched from the sidelines. Justin gave me such a quizzical look (hadn't we decided we wouldn't let her sing that song?) and when the singing started he turned his back on the class and looked over the balcony at the other classes on the first floor. I got the card, waited for Ella to get her stamps (which she showed me very proudly), gave it to her to give to Coach.

"Are you leaving?" Coach asked. I guess she thought it was a goodbye-thank you note. 

"No. It's just a card."

"Oh! Did you make it for me?" she asked Ella.

Ella smiled.

"I'll open it right now!"

"You don't have to do that..." I said. I hadn't considered this moment. She opened it, and the letter fell into her hands as she unfolded the card to see the pink heart. 

"My glasses..."

"Yeah. You can read that later. I just wanted you to have it. Say 'thank you', Ella."

On the way home, I told Justin I couldn't think of a way to pull Ella out of the class before the song and still give Coach the letter. 

"That makes sense," he said. 

For the rest of the day, I practiced mindfulness--living in the moment, not dwelling on what I had no control over. I had taken action. Now I just had to wait to see the reaction. There was nothing I could do about it. 

I missed her call, which came during a late dinner at a sushi restaurant with Justin and Ella. I was given the opportunity to practice mindfulness for two more days, before Coach called again on Friday afternoon. 

I'd been napping during Ella's nap because I wasn't feeling well, but when I saw the number I guessed it was her again. I didn't want to have to keep wondering, so I took the call.

"I'm calling about the Indian song. We are not going to change it. We've been singing that song for a long time and we don't think we are doing anything wrong."

"OK." What was I supposed to say? "I'm sorry you feel that way," came to mind, but it didn't sound very friendly, and I didn't know what to do, so I just said, "OK."

"If you want, you can take Ella out of the class before we sing the song. Just remind me, and I'll give her her stamps then--"

"That would be great." I think I cut her off. What was I supposed to say? I should have waited to see if she had another offer. "Thank you."

I texted Justin to come into the room when he had a chance (seriously, I was not feeling well. I didn't want to get out of bed until absolutely necessary.). 

"They're not going to change it," I told him, relaying the conversation. "What should I do?"

"Well, you can do nothing and let her sing the song or you can take it to the New York Times."

"OK." Great. "Those aren't very plausible choices." 

"It's a range. You can do anything in between. What do you want to do?"

"I can't let her learn the song. I told Coach I'd take Ella out early, but that doesn't seem great, either. And there's nothing to gain from going to the newspapers with it. I mean... I'd love to go to the newspapers with it. This is my kind of cause and I know how to do it, but what would Ella gain from it?"

"I don't know." 

"I don't want to be That Mom. I don't want her to feel isolated or awkward because of it."

"So then just take her out early or drop the class."

"But I like the class! But it's so awkward to take her out early. She's going to be so mad. What would you do?"

"If I were the parent who had to take her, I'd drop the class."

"Oh. Why?"

"It would be too hard to take her out early."


"It made me uncomfortable when they were singing it. I couldn't do it."

"Yeah. Well..."

You can see this isn't one of those easy parenting decisions like which brand of diapers to use. (Yeah, you know I did research on that one, too.)

I talked to some friends and family about it. 

I was told that I had "already made the decision before I gave Coach the letter that I was going to keep Ella in the class and just take her out early." I could "give her my own little stamps." But it was important that I didn't "act moody around the teacher." 

I was told to "vote with my money" and drop the class.

I was told that I had already been tricked by Coach into believing there was a "we" when I really didn't know if it was just Coach who had seen the letter. I had no way of knowing whether she had shared it with anyone. It was time to go to the director. It was time to make sure there really was a "we" behind this decision.

I was too sick and too tired and too stunned to do anything about it, so I just let it sit for a couple of days. I needed to gather my thoughts. I needed to process this information. I needed to plan my next steps. 

Now, it's Sunday night and I'm already dreading Wednesday--gymnastics day. I'm finding the dread lets up, though, if I plan on taking some kind of action rather than just pretending nothing is wrong during class and then trying to slip out without anyone noticing at the end that Ella is getting her stamps early and not singing the song. Pretending this plan is OK is making me sick to my stomach and my heart.

And then, there's this: 

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A 14-year-old Pakistani girl who at age 11 became an activist for education and women's rights when girls were banned from attending school, was shot in the head by the Taliban because they do not believe girls should be educated. The Taliban vows to assassinate her if she survives this attack, from which she is in critical condition. 

And I'm not brave enough to ask the director of a gymnastics facility in Orange County to change the children's song at the end of class?

A few interesting factors have come up for consideration:

A) Two of Ella's grandparents were born in India and live down the street from The Gym. They do not live in teepees, shoot arrows, or war-whoop. 
B) Ella's grandfather on Justin's side of the family has American Indian heritage, and he has never lived in a teepee, either. 
C) I remember singing this song in elementary school and being confused about the teepees and war-whoops. When I asked my mom about it, she said the song was about a different kind of Indians--American Indians--not us. 
D) Ella's Godmother has American Indian heritage and while she does live in Colorado, she does not live in a teepee, nor does her mother.

Also, my mention of being a high school teacher (and therefore respecting Coach's time) is also an indication that I know something about education and when I quote educators about children's development and self-esteem I'm not just copying random stuff from the internet. 

Also, the scenario that the two Native American writers describe in the last two articles I quoted in my research for Coach, where kids feel confused and stereotyped by this song, isn't just hypothetical.

Incidentally, I hadn't considered my own Indian heritage in my initial reaction to the song. I really was just coming at it from the perspective of some crazy liberal white girl. It was a sorority sister who brought up the possibility that Ella would be confused about being Indian and not living in a teepee. I said she didn't even realize she was Indian, but who knows. I just remembered that after Ella's first gymnastics class we went to my parents' house and then drove to Little India to have lunch together. She has a couple of Indian outfits. Throughout our home, photographs that I took in India are on display. She's met some of my Indian aunts and uncles and cousins. She knows what I mean when I say "Indian food," and when we are deciding between the Indian restaurant and the American restaurant across the street, she's pointed to the Indian one and said, "That one!" And then she eats her Tandoori chicken, curry, rice, naan, and raita happily. She wants a lassi and a gulab jamun, too. So maybe she's got a little bit of an idea that we're Indian. 

Justin's the one who said, "I'm the one who should be offended!" when he reminded me of his American Indian ancestry. 

Ella's godmother is personally offended for all of us. It's 2012. How is it that someone is teaching kids to war-whoop with their hands over their mouths and pretend they're dancing around a fire and building teepees?

So, now I have to figure out who the director of The Gym is and talk to him. Or her. 

I need to know if they are aware of this decision that Coach said "we" [they] made. If they are unaware of my concern, then I need to make them aware of it. Hopefully, they will be concerned as well, and want to make their gym a place that is more inclusive or at the very least politically correct. (Yes, I'll settle for politically correct. Obviously, I'd prefer enlightened, but if all I can get is people pretending to be PC, I'll take it.) If they are aware of my concern and this really is their corporate decision, then they should know that I will not be giving them my business. 

And maybe, just maybe, I'll go to the papers. 

That question I asked Justin, "What does Ella have to gain by me making a big deal out of it?"

The answer is a lot. 

If the song is changed and Coach doesn't like her because of it, that will be a drag, but we'll find a way to make it work. We have a million friends outside the gym, so we don't have to make it an overly social experience. (Though, I do so hope that if she comes to love a sport or an art form that she also comes to love the place and the people where she practices that craft. But right now we're talking about 45 minutes of our week at a mommy-and-me class. We can just take the class.)

If the song is not changed, Ella will see that it is important to live by your principles. She will see me acting on my beliefs. (Yeah. She's two. She will maybe notice that we're not doing that thing that she thought was so fun, but I'll find something else for her to try. Maybe another gym, but I've done a little research and The Gym is really the best of what I've seen so far. Except for that little bit about indoctrinating racism, of course.)

For years, I've had that square quotation magnet that says, "Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi." 

Ya'll probably already know that I'm only sort of joking about going to the papers. The Gym is an institution in Orange County. Olympians come out of that gym. It's been around for almost 50 years. Coach has been working there for 20 years. I can hardly fathom that I am the only parent who has ever been concerned about this song, though given how difficult it has been for me (of all people!) to voice my feelings to anyone at The Gym, I suppose I might actually be the only person who has ever said something about it. So yeah, if really the corporate "we" thinks children should learn that song as part of their gymnastics training, I might have to tell someone about it.

1 comment:

Tisha Voeller said...

Wonderfully put Olaina! Love and AOE :-)