Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Becoming a "Red-Blooded" American: White Tomboyism and American Indian Tribalism in Caddie Woodlawn

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Becoming a "Red-Blooded" American: White Tomboyism and American Indian Tribalism in Caddie Woodlawn

Article excerpt

When are you going to begin making a young lady out of this wild Indian, Mrs. Woodlawn?" So utters the visiting circuit rider about the tomboyish title character in one of the opening chapters of Carol Ryrie Brink's Newbery Award-winning novel Caddie Woodlawn, Far from an inconsequential remark, the travelling minister's association of the white tomboy with the non-white American Indians announces a recurring issue in Brink's novel. Throughout the 1935 narrative, the young girl possesses a strong relationship with the indigenous tribal people of western Wisconsin, where her family lives. As readers learn in the opening pages, for instance, Caddie's closest friend outside of her two brothers is not another rough-and-tumble girl or--echoing the pattern of countless other novels that feature tomboyish characters--a sissy boy. Instead, it is Indian John, the leader of the local tribe.

Although the circuit rider's characterization of Caddie as a "wild Indian" may emanate from the young girl's connection to the indigenous people in general and Indian John in particular, another equally powerful source is possible: her association with tomboyism. While the Anglo-American figure belongs to a different cultural heritage, possesses a different racial identity, and practices a different religion than the American Indians who inhabit her environment, her participation in this gender-bending code of conduct places her in dialogue with many common white stereotypes about them. In the same way that the tribal peoples of North America are seen as "wild" and "uncivilized," for instance, so too is Brink's title character because of her tomboyish ways. As Mr. Woodlawn himself remarks in the opening pages of the novel, his eleven-year-old daughter is "running wild instead of making samplers and dipping candles" (15). In addition, echoing the common racial classification of American Indians as "redskins," Caddie is repeatedly cast in an analogous manner: burned from exposure to the sun and flushed from her engagement in active outdoor play, her complexion is described as red, flush, or crimson at repeated points in the narrative (12, 16). Finally, reflecting prevailing white cultural beliefs that American Indians are "savage" and "uncivilized," the young girl is seen as acting in a similar way Indeed, when Mr. Tanner first encounters Caddie, she is making a decidedly "wild" entrance: bursting into the house, flinging open the dining room door, and spilling hazelnuts all over the floor. It is the young girl's rambunctious behaviour in this scene--not her friendship with Indian John--that prompts the circuit rider to compare her to indigenous peoples. In doing so, he connects Caddie with a long-standing phenomenon in American literature and culture whereby rowdy white children of either gender are accused of behaving "like a bunch of wild Indians."

Using these observations as a starting point, this essay unpacks the ways in which white tomboyism and American Indian tribalism are mutually constructed in Brink's novel. Caddie's tomboyish ability to cross the gender line between masculinity and femininity becomes mapped onto an ability to cross the racial one separating Anglo-Americans and American Indians. As a result, the young girl's resistance to the confines of white womanhood via her participation in tomboyism causes her to escape the confines of whiteness and instead be classified as a non-white "wild Indian." Especially when placed against the backdrop of prevailing societal beliefs about the "civilizing" power of white Christian women over both male unruliness and heathen "savagery," discourses about Anglo-American girlhood, Native American "primi-tivism", and United States frontier imperialism come to overlap and interlock in Carol Ryrie Brink's text.

Caddie's kinship with American Indian tribalism does more than simply serve as a metaphor for her tomboyish rebellion against white womanhood, however. It also becomes the means by which she paradoxically solidifies her status as an American. …

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