Friday, July 31, 2009

What do Custer, The Flu Epidemic of 1918, and Dumb Asses have in common?

I'm in the throes of extreme incredulity over a thoughtless statement in a non-fiction book I've started reading. It's titled "The Great Influenza", about the 1918 flu epidemic.

So here's my gripe.

John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, published by Viking: 2004 Chapter One, page 11:

"The nation was then ... engaged in different wars simultaneously... In the Dakotas, George Armstrong Custer had just led the Seventh Cavalry to its destruction at the hands of primitive savages resisting encroachment of the white man."

My objection is the casual use of the term "primitive savages" used in the introductory pages of a lengthy book whose subject is the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Did the author and the editor and the publisher never wonder if this particular racial slur and misrepresentation of a culture have any business in this particular book? Did they assume that no Native American persons would EVER read this particular book; no medical doctors, no professors, no high school teachers, no students? I'm not personally suggesting that John M. Barry, his editor, nor his publisher (Viking) should be "politically correct." I'm stating emphatically that the use of this terminology is inaccurate and a blatant misrepresentation of the people who were struggling to protect their homes, culture and families against violent attack.

Let me interject a quote from another book I've just finished reading:

Joseph M. Marshall III, author of The Journey of Crazy Horse, published by Penguin-Viking (same publisher of both books) 2004 Afterword, page 28:

"...the "an Indian is an Indian is an Indian" view of indigenous cultures... They know nothing of the reasons Indians fought so hard to protect their lands and their lives."

The people who "fought so hard to protect their lands and their lives," and their culture, were definitely not primitive; the Lakota were one of many nations on this continent whose entire way of life was based on religion, philosophy and art, and who had, among other myriad attributes, an extensive history of the understanding and use of a pharmacopoeia of medicines and medical practices.

The irony that I happened to be reading these two books concurrently is worth noting. As the Lakota say, "Life moves in a circle." Everything is connected. And if you're planning on using an outdated racial slur, don't slip it into a book published in the 21st century.


Joanne Ramey Cage said...

I agree that Barry's statement is offensive. Not knowing the tone of the rest of the book, however, I wonder if he meant it not casually but ironically, in the sense that "primitive savages," as the Indians were widely regarded, had handily destroyed the great Seventh Cavalry led by the phenomenal Custer.

However he meant it, he shouldn't have said it.

JD Atlanta said...

Dang! Mom beat me to it! I think he meant that in an ironic way. That's how Custer saw them ... and look at how that turned out.

I've read that book. It's a good history of medicine, an excellent disaster story, and even a good psychological study of how people reacted to this world-wide event.