Today is a gorgeous mid-autumn day — the bluest of skies, warm sunlight, fresh breezes through the drying leaves. In short, a perfect day. A perfect Indian summer day. And that name passes through my thoughts swift as an eel, and makes me wince. The words we grew up with, tossed about with no intent, no thought really, but now I find them catching in my throat. These are the little glitches that racism built into our American language, little tags that allow us to see just what kind of people we were, and still are.
Language is learned first from our parents and neighbors, then from the books we read, then from teachers, and finally from our forays out into the broader world. If we are lucky, we explore far and wide, and gain an understanding of language as both a tool for communication and insight. Our accumulation of words, starting with baby babble and nursery rhymes, and progressing through high and low sources, makes up the way we talk about almost anything.
And that’s now my problem.
Indian summer, Indian-giver, Indian paintbrush. We played cowboys and Indians. On rainy Saturday afternoons, we watched reruns of the worst westerns ever filmed, when the Indians looked like Europeans with mahogany makeup and the cowboy horses were all stallions. Everyone knew that Indians spoke in single word sentences, or like Yoda, got the words a little backwards. “Me no go” made perfect sense as Indian talk. Squanto was barely present at Thanksgiving, but only because of the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and winter squash, which graced the table. Did we know his real name, or the name of his people, the descriptions of their society, or the doom that the Mayflower colonists brought upon the Massachusetts shore? No. But we did know that there was a great big rock there.
Recently I watched John Wayne ride off into the sunset in “The Searchers.” I am not a fan of John Wayne. Oh, I see that the camera loved something about his face, which is always a mystery to me. Like other imperfect beauties, Wayne’s face draws us in, even as his acting often plods along. He occasionally shouts off a line like it was just shoved into his hand at the moment the director yelled, “Action!” But “The Searchers” is a masterwork of cinematography. The black framed doorway shot opens onto the glory of Monument Valley, and every wide image is saturated with beauty and light. And then the German guy in makeup shows up, followed by real-looking Native Americans, and a hateful mess of stereotypes cascades down upon us. It is hard to watch, if you’ve learned anything beyond the Squanto-comes-to-dinner Thanksgiving myth. Reviewers praised John Ford, the director, for giving a more balanced portrait of the Native Americans than in his previous work, and much is made of how wonderfully John Wayne’s character is flawed, displaying this ex-Confederate soldier’s racism. How daring, critics point out, it was in the mid 1950s to have such an anti-hero played by such a cinematic hero as Wayne. I do not know if this was truly daring, but at least the Native Americans were called by a name they might have recognized, Comanche, and I don’t recall too many references to “Injuns” or any derivative of Indians. And I did notice, through the entire film, that not one white settler was at home in this grand landscape. The Comanche and the land were one and the same threatening, unknowable enemy to the settlers. Even Wayne’s character, the one most at ease with the elements, reacts with mad rage at the herd of buffalo. John Ford framed the first and last image correctly: the darkness was inside the cabin, framing the light of the land. The people who in darkness slept.
My language, the words that spring up unbidden to describe the world around me, holds many dark words. I don’t think my father ever called a Brazil nut a Brazil nut. If you don’t know what he called it, you are better in your ignorance. I do know what my beloved Doctor Doolittle thought of African people, and the “charming” ways Hugh Lofting illustrated them. I remember lovely Ma Ingalls’ deep hatred of Native Americans even as her intrepid family ventured across the prairies that were properly, legally “Indian Territory.” And “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” did not involve catching tigers by the toe. Not until an adult intervened on the playground. None of these sources of my language set out to be racist. The speakers/writers used words deemed appropriate within their time period and within their social group. But all explode now with racism.
And the words always lurk down in my subconscious waiting to leap up when least expected. Why is Native American clumsier to say than Indian, when it is a truth, and the other is a lie? And for that matter, why when my language is saturated with words the first Americans left us – our rivers, our hills, our bays, some of our States, and town after town after town here in Pennsylvania and New York – can I not get rid of the stupid, mean labels we’ve attached to so many things around us? This Indian summer of mine. It could be an innocent attachment, with a reference to the period of time when the Native Americans gathered in the fall crops. Does that seem likely? Do we have an Indian spring, when the Three Sisters are safely planted? Or like to its kin, Indian-giver, is this a name that signals the falseness of the late autumn warmth, something not to be trusted? Ah, that rings far more true, for these days are a lie, a feint to catch us off guard when the cold comes in. And I can imagine those settlers living in their dark cabins, fearing everything about this new world, coming up with exactly those words.
This is a fine false autumn day. A settler called that flower a paintbrush, so why not call it settler’s paintbrush? Your friend betrayed you, and should be called a Mayflower-giver, or something of the sort. You see, the words are all part of me, every one. What burbles up cannot be controlled, language and subconscious minds being what they are. But like Ma Ingalls and Doctor Doolittle, we are responsible to be appropriate to our time and place. And today there is no room for quaint, time-softened racism, even if it springs to mind with a nursery rhyme. It is important what we call things, now.