Friday, October 16, 2015

We Still Have Work to Do

My in-laws are visiting, which is great for the kids. They are good people and adoring grandparents. They bring out the best in the kids. Like many grandparents they come bearing gifts. Usually things from the posh Goodwills of the Phoenix suburbs. Both kids, but especially The Boy, have been into little green army men and toys like that. They have sets from the Civil War, both World Wars, and even the Star Wars. This time grandma brought what she described to me as "cowboys and Indians." I'll be honest, I had mixed feelings about that, which were rapidly leaning towards uneasiness. We've been talking to the kids about the problems with the Washington football team's name and I wasn't sure how that message would jibe with plastic cowboys fighting plastic Indians.

Maybe he's an Arsenio Hall fan
Lucky for me, as often happens, the kid bailed me out. He looked at the plastic tube of figures and said, "Oh, it looks like Native Americans." I understand there's still some discussion among native people about what they want to be called but for now "Native Americans" seems like the safest way to go so I was relieved. Looking at them, and the sleeve of "cowboys" it struck me that it was really a set of "Pioneers and Native Americans" and not the traditional cowboys and Indians I had grown up with. I'm sure some of my native friends might tell me that's not really any different, and I understand that perspective. As a toy though the primary difference is that they were all in nonviolent poses. Some of the figures had bows or rifles, but they weren't pointing them at anything, so it was easy to label them as hunters. The one that looked the most war-like was easily dismissed by another observation from The Boy, "Hey, he looks like he's celebrating something." Indeed, maybe a touchdown? (No? Not funny? Sorry.)

I've written before about social consciousness being a moving target with kids. It seems like for every victory they soon show you where the gaps in their knowledge remain. Sure enough, The Boy's next comment caught me a bit off guard. He turned to his sister and said, "This is how we imagine them looking from a long time ago." Um...hmmm. Now of course these particular figures are to some extent the product of someone's imagination. They are labeled as "Powhatan Indians" but I have no idea how accurate the representation is, but I hope they're somewhat accurate. At least it's a real tribe. But that's not what The Boy was saying. He was repeating a line he'd heard from me when we saw depictions of cave men at the natural history museum. We'd identified a gap in his understanding of America's complicated and horrifying history with native people. "Well no bud, we actually know what they look like because they are still around. Also, there were photographs back then. Native Americans aren't gone buddy, they're still here today." He replied without looking up from his play, "Oh, OK dad. Cool."

Cool indeed. We didn't get into the plight or politics surrounding modern native people. We'll get into it another time I'm sure. For now it was enough to have him understand that Native Americans are not relegated to history. It's enough for him to realize that there is more to know and more to explore. For now I'm happy to see him playing with the pioneers and Native Americans as peaceful contemporaries in his make believe world. Even if he's playing out a peace that never really happened, at least he's able to imagine it thanks to a re-imaging of a toy that, when I was a kid, was one-hundred percent based on conflict. It's a step in the right direction in terms of seeing people as people and not as adversaries or worse, as fictional or extinct. It's enough that once again the kids were able to show me where I had yet to teach them about our world. We still have work to do.

Peaceful pioneers and Native Americans. And a Samurai for some reason.

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