Updated below. Wednesday morning. February 11.
L. Frank Baum, who wrote the original story that sent Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion down the the Yellow Brick Road and into literary immortality, was an advocate of sending Native Americans into oblivion. Ten years before he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz he worked as a newspaper editor in South Dakota and in 1890 right around the time of the massacre at Wounded Knee he wrote in an editorial for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer:
The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians…Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; it’s better that they should die than live the miserable wretches that they are.
In January of 1891, shortly after the massacre he followed up in another editorial
The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth…
I didn’t know this about Baum, that he was a genocidist, until this morning when Mrs M pointed out a story in the Washington Post. I didn’t know much of anything about Baum. I was never interested in him or his books to find out. I never liked The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or the few of its sequels I tried to read as a kid. Of course I set out to read the books because I loved the movie and was disappointed when it turned out the book wasn’t as “good” as the movie. But I really didn’t like them as stories. I thought they were creepy. And I didn’t think they were well written, although I probably didn’t think in critical terms. I just knew that Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, Around the World in Eighty Days, and The Hound of the Baskervilles sounded better in my head. I wanted to “hear” those stories told again and again. Nothing about the Oz books made me want to read more of Baum’s other books, of which there were dozens, he was a book writing machine. And nothing I read by him made me want to get to know him the way I wanted to know and got to know Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle. I must have read the World Book and then the Encylopedia Britanica articles on him, because I read may way through both those encyclopedias, I was that kind of a nerdy kid, but whatever I read didn’t stick. I wonder what I’d have thought if I had learned more about him. He led an interesting life and was something of a visionary and a futurist. He loved movies and plays and right from the start he made his Oz stories a multi-media phenomenon. And as a reminder that people in history didn’t sort themselves and their thinking out according to contemporary notions of liberal and conservative, he was a supporter of women’s suffrage and their right to forge lives and careers of their own. Given the time I grew up in and the nature of biographies written for kids, his racism might have been left out of things. Maybe he’d have become one of my favorite authors.
So it’s no heartbreak to me to learn he was what he was.
Reading those passages from his editorials filled me with disgust but in an abstract, impersonal, and, honestly, almost manufactured way---that is I was disgusted because I know his views are disgusting but I didn’t feel disgusted by the man. Knowing what he thought at the time of Wounded Knee doesn’t outrage and sicken me the way thinking about what happened at Wounded Knee does. He exists in my head as a dry historical fact. His characters are more alive and real to me. And what he was doesn’t affect my feelings about the Dorothy and her friends because I don’t feel they belong to Baum or are even his creations. They escaped him while he was still alive. They belong to us now. They’re part of the popular imagination like other figures of myth and legend and fairy tales. J.K. Rowling is seeing the same thing happen to her characters. They’ve slipped her grasp and every attempt she makes to reel them back in---like declaring that Ron and Hermione don’t belong together---emphasizes her loss of control. Dorothy Gale is one of the great heroines of our collective imagination regardless of the exterminationist views of the writer who first thought her up, and one of the things we know about Dorothy is that she is a defender of the weak and powerless.
I’ll never like the books or care about Baum himself, but I’ll always love Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion and the movie that brought them to life for me.
But then I’m not Native American.
One thing I did know about Baum was that he was born and raised in the village of Chittenango in upstate New York. If I didn’t learn this as a kid reading the encyclopedia, I couldn’t escape it when we lived in Syracuse. Chittenango is just east of Syracuse and every year the town honors its famous literary son with an annual Oz-Stravaganda. As you might expect, the festival celebrates the movie more than the books or their author, and until the last surviving one died, the guests of honor always included actors who’d played Munchkins in the movie. I never went. And I regret that. Maybe
But the reason Baum’s racist editorials are in the news is that some local entrepreneurs plan to name their latest business venture with an homage to The Wizard of Oz.
The Yellow Brick Road Casino.
Chittenango is next door to the Oneida Indian Nation and it’s the Oneidas who are opening the casino. They already have one down the road in Verona, Turning Stone. The Oneidas are not hesitant to assert their rights or shy about showing their pride in themselves as a people and in their culture. As a nation they are united in pushing for that football team in Washington D.C. to change its racist name. So it strikes some Native Americans as hypocritical and even an act of self-betrayal for them to name their casino in a seeming tribute to someone who called Indians untamed and untamable and thought they should be wiped from the face of the earth.
The Oneidas leader, Ray Halbritter, seems to see it as simply good marketing.
Besides that, in 2006, two of Baum’s descendents went out west to apologize to Lakota families whose ancestors had been killed at Wounded Knee.
“We stand before you and before the citizens of both our great nations to suggest,” their statement read, “that ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ a great American fairy tale, and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, a great American tragedy, be forever joined in the hearts, minds and memories of all our people.”
Halbritter thinks that naming the casino after the Yellow Brick Road is expressive of a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
And, when you think about it, it’s really not Baum who’s being honored or even remembered.
Dorothy Gale is a heroine who belongs as much to Oneida children as to all other children all over the world.
You should read the whole story, Tribe fighting Redskins name plans ‘Oz’ casino despite author’s racist past, by John Woodrow Cox, at the Washington Post.
Also: An account of the killing of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee at PBS’ website for the documentary series, The West, Like Grass Before the Sickle.
Just an aside for fun: JK Rowling backtracks on ‘Harry Potter heresy’ at the Guardian.
Hat tip to Mrs M, who loved the Oz books when she was a kid, but the ones written by Ruth Plumly Thomspon, particularly Handy Mandy in Oz.
Update, which I wouldn’t need to do, if I only had more of a brain: As Frances Di Pasqua observes in the comments, Baum’s editorials don’t seem to fit with the diverse and tolerant world he created with Oz.
I'm very surprised to find this out about Baum! His stories are all about very different sorts of people coming together in fellowship to withstand some threat. I read several of the books that came after Wizard of Oz years ago and was amazed by how forward-thinking they seemed to be about the nature of women and those who are different from us. Now that I think of it, was Baum talking about the acceptance of immigrants in contrast to the native Americans?
And you may have noticed in the first quote that he refers to the wrongs done to the Indians and calls what he argues for, their annihilation one more wrong. Nathan Newman did what I should have done, and what the Post reporter and Ray Halbritter’s critics should have done, and looked up and read the whole of the first editorial, which was written in response to the murder of Sitting Bull, and dropped this note on Facebook:
Although it's a weird genocidal viewpoint since he seems to argue that the original conquest of the Continent and slaughter had "wronged them for centuries" and further genocide was a "wrong" meant to both protect whites against reprisals and in some ways restore dignity to a people who it'd be better they "should die than live the miserable wretches that they are." I was curious and found this expanded version of the first editorial.
Note this passage about Sitting Bull: "his conquerors, were marked in their dealings with his people by selfishness, falsehood and treachery. What wonder that his wild nature, untamed by years of subjection, should still revolt? What wonder that a fiery rage still burned within his breast and that he should seek every opportunity of obtaining vengeance upon his natural enemies." So it's a weird complicated mess of views here.
Reader Keith B also went searching for the editorials:
It's surprising to read this about Baum, who had humane views about nearly everything else. He also had an ironical sense of humor; he once wrote a story about an octopus who was highly offended at being compared to the Standard Oil company. I read the editorials as reprinted in Wikipedia, and they sound like sarcasm to me. Why else describe Sitting Bull as "an Indian with a white man's spirit of hatred and revenge" or preface a call for extermination by acknowledging that whites have "wronged them for centuries"? It's fairly clear where his sympathies lie, and it isn't with the white settlers.
Not sure where this leaves us, except as my Facebook friend says, with “a weird complicated mess of views.” One thing, though. I think it’s time I did what I was never interested in doing back when I was an encyclopedia-reading kid. Find out more about Baum.
Maybe I should even try re-reading some Oz books.