MAGNET’s Mitch Myers recalls his history with a troublesome collectible, marketing in preliterate America and an encounter that changed everything.
When I was a little kid, my parents took a car trip from our home in Chicago to Oklahoma City. It was the early 1960s when they went on this vacation by themselves. At some point, my mom had my dad pull over at a roadside craft-and-antique shop, and she ended up buying a hand-carved wooden Indian that stood about three feet high on a pedestal. The small stoic figure was painted mostly red, sporting a full chieftain’s headdress.
My mom had always collected art, and the wooden Indian became part of our home’s décor. For a time, we also had a bearskin rug and a Japanese mural on the dining room wall that she had stenciled in metallic gold paint. As the years went on, the wooden Indian was shuttled from the living room to a hallway or some other spot but never forsaken, even after we moved to another suburb locale.
For me, the 1970s presented clearer representations of Native American culture than the old movie Westerns, and I drifted into a mild level of awareness thanks to films like Little Big Man and books like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. I also liked Clair Huffaker’s strange reservation saga Nobody Loves A Drunken Indian. That book was made into a movie starring Anthony Quinn, but they changed the name because the title was deemed offensive.
Originally, carved figures of wooden Indians appeared in 17th-century England after tobacco trade was established between Virginia and Europe.Wooden sculptures of cigar-store Indians became common advertising outside of British smoke shops in the 1800s, which made sense from the standpoint that Native Americans had introduced tobacco to European adventurers in the first place.
The cigar-store Indian was adopted in preliterate America to signify tobacco dealers as well—much like a prominent red-and-white-striped pole came to represent an on-site barbershop. A large wooden Indian clutching a handful of cigars remained the sidewalk symbol for American tobacconists until the early 1900s.
Wooden Indians usually range in size from three feet up to 12 feet. Like other primitive artforms conceived in a previous era, this near-forgotten curio became a collectible in spite of its insensitive, stereotypical depiction of race and culture. My parents paid around 50 bucks for our wooden Indian, and if you look on eBay nowadays, they can fetch anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars.
As I said, our wooden Indian was moved around my parents’ home from one spot to another, but when I finished college and got my own apartment, I took the little guy with me in lieu of furniture. In similar fashion, I tried placing it in different spots, even keeping it in my bathroom for several years.
I do think I have to stop and again acknowledge that this example of old American folk art is highly questionable, if not totally inappropriate. Due to the insensitive racial nature of such artifacts, there’s an obvious reduction of real culture that generates and sustains dehumanizing stereotypes. Some people might say, “Well, having a wooden Indian it isn’t as bad as collecting Nazi memorabilia or holding on to a black lawn jockey,” and my response to that opinion is: It would probably depend on who you’re asking.
The fact remains that much like my parents before me, I hung on to that old wooden Indian. Perhaps it was because I lived alone and never thought to discuss the issue with anyone else, but the little guy stuck with me and went on to survive my next change of residence. It ended up being tucked away next to a small bookcase in my bedroom and was mostly forgotten as furniture taken for granted and never noticed. Benign neglect, if you will.
A few years ago, I was running around this film festival in the Hudson Valley when I met an accomplished young woman who said she originally hailed from my hometown. We got along pretty well and agreed that when she came back to the city, we would get together. Sure enough, a few months later, her work bought her to Chicago. She was busy, staying with family, and we texted each other a couple of times. I invited her over to my place, and she agreed to stop by in the late afternoon.
Anticipating her arrival, I proceeded from room to room, tidying up the premises as one does when expecting a guest. As I surveyed my bedroom and spotted the wooden Indian, I recalled that my new acquaintance had worked closely with a Native American population and was clearly empathic to their circumstance.
Now to be clear, at that moment, I understood that all I had to do about my awkward artifact was close the bedroom door. It also must be said that this woman was quite attractive, and I was a good bit older. I was single and available, but the likelihood of romantic interest on her part was practically nil. I knew this, I was clear that the chances we would end up in my bedroom that day were completely nonexistent. But … still.
I looked over at my wooden companion and said something like, “Listen Little Junior, daddy’s got a visitor coming over and you’re going to have to get out of sight for a little while. Really sorry, buddy, nothing personal—you understand.” And with that, I jammed it in the back of my bedroom closet, shut the closet door and resumed straightening up.
My friend showed up, and I must admit she looked absolutely sensational. She was stylishly dressed and couldn’t have been more fetching. After a quick tour, we ended up in my back office, where we spent time talking about ourselves and getting better acquainted. She was quite worldly, we shared many interests, and we even had a friend or two in common. We couldn’t have been hanging out for more than an hour when my guest said she had to be going. I walked her to the door, and quick as a flash, she was gone. It was then I realized she was dressed so nicely because she was headed out for the evening—plans that had nothing to do with me.
There wasn’t much for me to do, except ruefully pull Little Junior out of the hiding place I’d devised and put him back next to the bookcase. He never looked at me quite the same way after that, and who could blame him? Somehow, for an instant, I’d become a closet racist, and that was not good. Someone told me there was a Seinfeld episode from 1993 that touched on a similar situation, which just goes to prove that Larry David and Co. have already written about everything that is ever going to happen to a guy like me.
I thought about how I might resolve this conflict. I considered selling Little Junior on eBay, but that felt too mercenary. Tossing him in the trash seemed heartless after all these years. Putting him out on the street was unthinkable. And so, as I finish writing this story, I want to report that I’ve moved the wooden Indian into my basement storage unit to molder among the other remnants of my past lives. It was the only solution I could come up with. Besides telling you—making this yet another Basement Tale.