Native American Barbie professorsLINDA LEGARDE GROVER: Perhaps the Barbies were a little nervous. This was, after all, their first experience teaching in a university. Next to them were a Land-O-Lakes butter package and a tourist souvenir doll from the 1950s.
For their outing to UMD where they would be special guests in the American Indian Women class that I teach, the three Native American Barbie dolls had changed from their usual at-home wear (poufy prom gowns with sparkly accessories and tiny high heels) into their original Mattel-designed versions of American Indian dresses, the ones that they wore when they were new.
Seated in a row on the table at the front of the classroom they waited graciously, Ojibwe Barbie in pink satin, Sioux Barbie in turquoise, the older and original American Indian Barbie who brought along her infant, Baby Blue Feather, in faux suede. Forty-five college students found chairs and dug textbooks, notebooks and pens from their backpacks.
Perhaps the Barbies were a little nervous. This was, after all, their first experience teaching in a university. Next to them were a Land-O-Lakes butter package and a tourist souvenir doll from the 1950s. My laptop was hooked up, and the Mazola Corn Oil commercial (“We call it Maize!”) from the mid-1970s was ready to play on the movie screen.
The students in the American Indian Women class work hard. They read quite a lot, write more than they probably expected to, and research rather extensively outside of class. They are young adults, but not that far away from their own childhoods (are any of us, really?). The dolls caught their attention right away.
A young man in front raised his hand. “Professor Grover, what are we going to do today?” he asked.
I ran the commercial, read aloud Heid Erdrich’s wonderful poem, Butter Maiden and Maize Girl Survive Death Leap, and introduced the Native American Barbies, who generously allowed students to pass them around the class and hold them.
The dolls generated a lot of interest. Of course, Barbies are familiar to the students, and some of the young women handled them in the same way as do my granddaughters when they are playing — careful of their clothes and hair, supporting them as they stand, looking into their faces and stepping easily into that plane of semi-imaginary existence that is the world of doll-and-girlhood.
My 9-year-old granddaughter had stepped lightly and seamlessly into that world as she helped search in the toy box to find the dolls’ Native American Barbie outfits. There are several Barbies at my house, and they are a diverse group.
The Native American dolls were gifts, two from my mother and one from a former student. Usually, they wear classic (from little girls’ perspectives) Barbie clothes, which includes poufy prom dresses with high heels.
It took a while to find their Native American Barbie dresses in the tangle. We never did find all of their tiny moccasins, (you know how Barbie shoes are!) and so two of them wore plastic cowboy boots to UMD. And one, whose hair had become unmanageable, wore a fabulous hat.
They looked good, although, Mattel’s version of Native clothing isn’t really very authentic at all. In fact, the pink cowboy boots and the fabulous hat might have been the closest to what a real Native girl might have wanted to wear with those outfits!
The students’ assignment, which was to apply all of this to a chapter of their textbooks that addressed image, Native tradition, and societal roles, required a creative application of academic skills. They did a good job. Their discussion groups were lively, their study posters and written work were well thought-out and thorough. I think they enjoyed the brief trip back to childhood as well as integrating what they experienced as children into their academic endeavors as college students.
After class the Butter Maiden box went into the recycle bin and the souvenir doll back onto the bookshelf in my office. The Mazola Corn Oil commercial is floating in YouTube cyberspace, where I found it. Heid Erdrich’s poem, which can be found in her book National Monuments, continues to inspire the writing and minds of the students of the American Indian Women class. And mine.
The three Native American Barbies appreciated the opportunity to be a part of the UMD students’ educational experience and are now resting up and getting a little beauty sleep in the toy box while they wait for my granddaughters to open the lid and play. The first thing the little girls will do, I am sure, will be to assist them in slipping into something a little more Barbie-ishly comfortable — poufy prom dresses, tiny high heels, and some bling.
Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.