The fight against Native mascots, stereotypes and caricatures have made recent headlines around the world as Native Americans continue attempts to educate others against the usage and defense of demeaning and disrespectful imagery, and stop the practice. Though research studies by groups such as the American Psychology Association have concluded such imagery is detrimental to Natives, especially in our young people, who have some of the highest rates of suicide in the world, in Germany such images are endless.
Just one among other German authors with Indians as their drawing point, from penning crime dramas and thrillers, Sascha Ehlert turned to that more financially lucrative theme, using such Native caricatures to fuel a series of children’s books promoting good oral hygiene. Written in adventure type stories geared towards ages four to 10, after gaining in popularity with children, parents and teachers, the author soon began to promote his work by touring festivals, schools and kindergartens, where he is received with eager applause. Wearing his own fake Indian headband with a feather, in front of an audience of “little Indians” bedecked the same, Ehlert often encourages them to make whooping noises in imitation of the Indian stereotype to build the atmosphere before beginning his storytelling.
With illustrations by José Antonio Martin Vilchez, the main character of the books is a little girl named Wiggle Tooth of the Tooth Tribe. A stereotypical supporting cast includes a gray-haired shaman, a faithful animal sidekick and a variety of comedic others. The main rivals of her band are the Stinkyfoot Tribe, the leader of which is Chief Cheese Foot. Other tribes interested in gaining the lost teeth of the Tooth tribe’s children and making general mischief are the Cavity Apaches, whose favorite past-time is tying people to martyr stakes.
Doubtless, children need education about proper teeth cleaning practices, and using fun images or stories can make dental care more memorable, but what does using racial stereotypes and caricatures also teach the children? The APA further explained, “the continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities has a negative effect not only on American Indians students but all students. The educational experiences of members of all communities, especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous Peoples, teaches non-Indian children that it's acceptable to participate in culturally abusive behavior and perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions about American Indian culture.”
Additionally, it “undermines the ability of American Indian nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality, and traditions. It is a form of discrimination against American Indian Nations that can lead to negative relations between groups.”
Though some claim: “It’s just fiction,” “It’s harmless,” or “We are doing it to honor you,” Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, of the University of Arizona, said such images “are harmful not only because they are often negative, but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them. This in turn restricts the number of ways American Indians can see themselves."
Admired at the Leipzig and Frankfurt Book Fairs, Ehlert’s series of pseudo Natives have caught the eye and imaginations of children and parents of a country arguably known to idolize and compartmentalize Native Americans as being one-dimensional beings of the romanticized past.
Thus far, the only critical comments by German reviewers have stated, “the tooth care tips were rather out-of-date,” yet ironically enough there was wide admiration for "the beautiful cartoons." There has been no mention or questioning of creating a fake background of people and cultures still active for one's own popularity or amusement. For authors such as Ehlert, it also effectively demonstrates that somehow it is okay to stereotype a culture and its people for one’s own gain.