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Indians Make Library a Battleground for Truth

August 13, 1987|PATRICK MOTT

The seated Indian woman holds an intricately woven basket considered by many to be among the most valuable art objects in the world today. Probably made by the woman herself, it is a testament to hundreds of years of tradition, care and skill.

Yet the caption below the grainy, turn-of-the-century photograph acknowledges none of this. It reads simply: "A DEGENERATE."

The woman probably was a Cahuilla Indian who lived in Southern California in the 1890s near what is today Palm Springs, according to Paul Apodaca, a Navajo Indian and curator of folk art at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. The high quality and beauty of the baskets woven by her tribe and others throughout California have made them prized by museums and private collectors alike, he said.

But, the two-word identification in a popular 89-year-old travel book of that era underscores what Apodaca and other American Indians say is a bitter legacy of literary and educational misconceptions, misunderstandings and untruths about them that have been passed on to generations of children and that, in some cases, continues today.

The portrayal of Indians in literature, the media and popular U.S. culture has had a long history of ignorance--and often brutal inaccuracy, Apodaca told Orange County Public Library staff members at a recent meeting at the Bowers Museum.

Apodaca and Carl Bryant, a member of the South Dakota Lakota Sioux tribe and project officer for federal Indian education programs in the Garden Grove Unified School District, said they have campaigned for years for wider and more accurate representation of Native Americans in public and school libraries.

In particular, they said, many school children--both Indian and non-Indian--have been limited by a lack of study materials and end up using dated textbooks and other literature that have misrepresented the role of Native Americans in history.

Library workers, for the most part, have had limited knowledge of available Indian literature, whether accurate or inaccurate, said Lucille Hutcherson, chairwoman of the Orange County Public Library's multicultural committee.

The seminar sponsored by the committee represented a campaign by the library workers to "have a more or less formal tie with our own urban Indians in Orange County," Hutcherson said. "Until recently we felt that we have been kind of flying blind in some ways."

More than 208,000 American Indians live in California, believed to be the largest concentration in the United States, according to estimates of Indian Centers and tribal organizations, using the 1980 U.S. Census figures as a base, Apodaca said.

In Orange County, the population is estimated at 24,000, a figure Apodaca calls one "of the best-kept secrets in the state."

"Modern society doesn't provide a very good education about this, both about the past and the present," Apodaca said.

Those figures also came as a surprise to county librarians, Hutcherson said: "Most of the mainstream of Orange County has no idea that there are so many urban Indians here. We were very impressed by learning that fact."

Because many of Orange County's Indians are school-age children, many Indian leaders in the county say it is important to sensitize school officials and librarians to recognize textbooks and other volumes containing ethnic slurs and outright misinformation.

Modern literature about American Indians has improved in its historical and cultural accuracy, but many readers, particularly children, often don't know about such books or have not been told that they are available, Apodaca said.

"I have visited literally hundreds of schools," he said, "and almost all of the school libraries have very good books about Indians in them. But the kids often are not directed to utilize them, and instead refer to their textbooks, which often (are) inaccurate. That textbook is such a looming figure that many students and teachers don't go beyond it."

Misconceptions about Indians originally were propagated by books published since the arrival of Europeans in the United States. But Apodaca and Bryant told librarians that all too often those books have shaped society's views of Indians and many continue to be accepted without question today.

"There is a strange racial sensitivity in this country as to what Indians are and are not," Apodaca said. "It is from the people who wrote and read these books that we have all become educated (about Indians) today."

One of the most telling early examples of false and demeaning portrayals of Indians, he said, is "John L. Stoddard's Lectures," a series of volumes published about the turn of the century and designed for the armchair traveler. The picture of the Indian woman with the basket was contained in one of Stoddard's books, published in 1898.

Elsewhere in the same book, a group of California Indians was identified in a photograph as "a fallen race." In another section, Indians were described as having facial features reflecting "a kind of bovine melancholy."

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