The Perceived Ubiquity of American Indian Artifacts

Recently, in the library, I found a 1932 book entitled Children of the Great Sprit by Frances Somers and Florence Crannell Means. It’s a teacher’s guide, meant to be “A Course on the American Indians For Primary Children.” It’s unsurprisingly super racist, but that’s not the interesting part. There is this really strange moment in the text where the authors suggest, among a dozen other education “activities,” that the children engage in “collecting Indian objects.” The full excerpt reads:

“No matter what tribe is being studied, the observation of articles of Indian workmanship offers a good way of initiating and strengthening the course. The leader may be able to borrow from friends, from the public school, from a museum, of from the mission board. It is best to display only a few articles at first. These will almost certainly suggest to the children others which might bring in from week to week. When everything must be labeled and carefully handled and kept track or, training in responsibility results.”

The authors are presuming the constant availability of Native American artifacts, which is not only unrealistic and strangely delusional, but also paints a very haunting picture of America as a mass grave, the whole country resembling the strewn out insides of one of those excavated mounds. What I  realized was even weirder, though, was that the cultural narrative surfacing in that quote is actually pretty familiar to me. When confronted with it as a school assignment, I’m instantly skeptical, but without the rigid prescription of needing to go and find something on demand, it dawned on me that this is a totally pervasive narrative and one that I have been exposed to my whole life. I have this image, I don’t know where from, multiple places I’m guessing, of a child finding an arrow head in the woods. And it’s such a delightful pseudo-memory, that youthful archaeological discovery, I take immense pleasure from it. I suspect it’s a trope older than the New Deal archaeological boom, but I’m not positive and it would be pretty cool if it’s origins are the Great Depression excavations in popular culture.

Also, I just realized, that’s exactly what happens in that scene in Little House on The Prairie when Laura and her sister find the beads at the abandoned Indian camp site. It’s that very same pleasure, too. I have a highly relevant analysis of that scene that I’ll post sometime soon. It’s what inspired this project, so it is super duper on point.

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