Neil Gaiman and “a few dead Indians”

Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature recently called attention to a 2008 interview with Neil Gaiman where the Coraline author explained why his The Graveyard Book was set in an English not American cemetery:

“The great thing about having an English cemetery is I could go back a very, very, very long way. And in America, you go back 250 years (in a cemetery), and then suddenly you’ve got a few dead Indians, and then you don’t have anybody at all, unless you decide to set it up in Maine or somewhere and sneak in some Vikings.”

Reese rightly pointed out that Gaiman’s comment was problematic. It sounds to me both ahistorical and dismissive of Native peoples. Gaiman’s quote smells of dreaded hipster racism, where what could have been said simply and clearly (I wanted the graveyard in the book to have a longer European-centered history than could be found easily in an American cemetery.) is “jazzed up” and made edgy by some throwaway offensiveness directed at brown people a la “dead Indians.” And isn’t the subtext to Gaiman’s comment that the stories of American people pre-European invasion aren’t worth telling? That may not be what Gaiman meant, but his thoughtless quip made it seem that way.

The author took to the comments section of Reese’s blog to explain himself:

I was replying to a specific question about European-style graveyards in the US and who you’d find in them and why I didn’t set THE GRAVEYARD BOOK in America, which was that they didn’t go back far enough, and they didn’t give me the dead people I wanted for the story to work. Obviously (or obviously to me) I wasn’t saying or implying that the country was uninhabited prior to the arrival of Europeans, or trying to somehow render invisible hundreds of millions of people who had inhabited this content for tens of thousands of years — especially after having very specifically written about them, and about that timespan in American Gods.

(And, of course, European Graveyards in the US go back much further than 250 years.)

A more sensible answer to why I didn’t set The Graveyard Book in America was that I didn’t want to, but I had a microphone stuck in front of my face by the Hornbook in front of a crowd of people at Book Expo or ALA, and I babbled.

Also apologies to any Icelandic or Norwegian readers who are offended by my imprecision. Obviously none of the Newfoundland settlers were Vikings.

Based on his quip about Icelandic and Norwegian readers, I’m not so sure that Gaiman takes the critique of his comment so seriously. Certainly, a lot of his supporters in the comments section do not.

Read the dialog on American Indians in Children’s Literature. What do you think?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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