Michael Steele, “Honest Injun,” and, “Injun” in Children’s Books

by Guest Contributor Debbie Reese, originally published at American Indians in Children’s Literature

When Harry Reid’s remarks about Obama hit the news yesterday, Michael Steele (head of the Republican Party) said Reid ought to resign. When called out on his own language (Steele said “Honest Injun” on January 4), he said, at first, that he did not to apologize or step down from his own position. Now, he’s issuing the classic “IF” I offended anyone….. (not)apology.

There’s been a lot of spin about both men and what they said. With this post, I focus on the terms “Injun” and “Honest Injun.”

Steel says his use of the phrase was not intended as a racial slur. I imagine a lot of people were surprised to learn that “injun” is derogatory.

Surprised, because, it is, after all, quite common. You can find “Injun” and “Honest Injun” in older books that are widely read today, like:

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – published in 1876, where “evil is embodied in the treacherous figure of Injun Joe,” (p. x of the intro to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Signet Classic book published in 2002) and in the oath used several times by characters.

Seems to me, in my cursory study of the phrase, that it may have been coined by Twain. In the entry on “Injun,” the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists Twain as the first person to use “Injun.” It also lists several other noted writers who used “Honest Injun.” Some are George Bernard Shaw in 1896 and James Joyce (in Ulysses) in 1922.

And you can find “Injun” in new books, like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly, published in 2009. It appears twice in Kelly’s book, on page 135 and 251. In both instances, it is used as an oath. Here’s the relevant excerpt on page 135?


“Double Injun.”

“It doesn’t count unless you say the whole thing,” he said.


“Okay, okay, okay. But say it, huh?”

“Double Injun blood brothers swear to die,” I said. “Now leave me alone.”

Kelly used it again on page 251:

She swore the deepest double-Injun-blood-brothers oath for me.

I have not read Kelly’s book, so I have no idea what the two characters in the exchange are talking about. The novel is set in 1899 and the oath was in use by then. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is getting a lot of buzz this year. There’s a lot of people hoping it’ll get one of the top prizes (the Newberry Medal).

Given that attention, I hope that teachers are taking the opportunity to talk with students about that word, “Injun.” I wonder if Steele’s schoolteachers used Holling C. Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea? Published in 1941, it was awarded a Caldecott Honor Medal. In Holling’s book, a toy Indian in a toy canoe is put into the water. It makes its way downriver, and ends up in Lake Superior, where a fisherman catches it (page 23):

‘Best catch in weeks!” one man was saying. ‘And that’s not all—look! we’re even netting red Injuns in canoes!

I’ve also come across the word “Injun” in The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories compiled by Barbara M. Walker, published in 1989. It includes a recipe for “Rye’N’Injun, a kind of bread. “Rye’N’Injun” appears several times in Farmer Boy, published in 1953.  Walker says that bread is known today as Boston Brown Bread. On page 86, she writes

“Its history reaches back to the first New England colonists, whose only grains were the rye they brought from Europe and the corn they got from the Indians (hence “injun” for cornmeal).

Was “Injun” a word for cornmeal? I don’t know, and I’m not going to take time right now to find out…  Staying on point with “Injun”…

It’s in Elizabeth George Speare’s Calico Captive, and Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive, The Story of Mary Jemison. I understand it being used in historical fiction. It was a phrase used in the past, but not today, and it’d be terrific if, when they come across it, teachers would point out that “Injun” is a derogatory word.

It’s in Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys.  You can find it in Lynne Reid Banks’s The Key to the Indian. But, did Benjamin Franklin use the phrase, “Honest Injun,” as suggested by Augusta Stevenson in her biography, Benjamin Franklin: Young Printer?

Another children’s book author uses it…  Joseph Bruchac. In his The Heart of a Chief, you’ll find him pushing back on the use of it and other words. His protagonist, Chris, and his friends are at a football game. His friend is Anthony, or Tony, or Pizza. Here’s the excerpt (p. 55):

People are going crazy on our side of the field. A bunch of kids are doing the tomahawk chop while others are patting their hands against their mouths to do phony war whoops.

The cheerleaders are doing cartwheels. They hold up their pom-poms and sing out together, “TONY, TONY, HE’S OUT MAN. IF HE CAN’T DO IT, NO ONE CAN!”

Just as I realize they are talking about Pizza–Anthony is his given name, which no one at Penacook ever uses–the big man in the New England Patriots jersey stands up, “Scalp ’em, Injun, scalp ’em!” he bellows. Other people take up his chant.


I realize for the first time what it is like to be excited and depressed all at once. I look at my friends and see the same look on their faces that must be on mine. Should we laugh or cry?

In his book, Bruchac calls attention to a lot of words and to the mascot issue. For that reason alone, I encourage teachers and librarians to get and use his book, especially right now, in the wake of William Michael Steele’s remarks. You might also want to talk with students about Native response to Steele. See “GOP leader uses racist term” by Rob Capriccioso in Indian Country Today on January 12, 2010 and  “Michael Steele’s ‘honest injun’ comment sparks backlash”, in the Chicago Tribune on January 7, 2010.

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