No matter what the premise of anything called Ten Little Indians, it is all based on death, murder or genocide, and in the end the Indians are all going to die. Right? And it’s just a game, isn’t it? Something that children play, so why change it or argue over it? It’s so innocent. Right?
As originally outlined in an opinion piece by Julianne Jennings, the rhyme was written by noted American songwriter Septimus Winner in 1864 (or 1868) and performed at minstrel shows. It was then adapted in 1869 by Frank J. Green as Ten Little Niggers and became a standard of the blackface minstrel shows in England and America. Over time, the N-word was deemed insensitive and changed back to Indians, then to soldiers, then teddy bears, then bunnies, and lately as bunnies dressed as Indians. It has never left the classroom here or overseas. The song is still being used to teach counting (or English), enhanced by animation, choreography and use of Native Indian stereotypes and tropes.
Those Ten Little Indians will always stand-in for murder, death and genocide. Sometimes a school or community group will consider putting on a stage play based on Agatha Christie’s book and they soon find out that it could be considered politically incorrect or racist.
The most famous variation was Christie’s 1939 book, actually titled Ten Little Niggers in England, and following American reprints and adaptations were all retitled And Then There Were None the last words in the nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians. The mystery novel sold 100 million copies, one of the largest selling books ever. It would not go away and was made into a 1945 English film, an American version 1965, an English “all-star” remake in 1974, a Russian version in 1987, and lastly a BBC TV series in 2015. It’s important to realize that it has never gone away and it’s still prevalent in today’s society.
One version that is ingrained in many children’s minds is the 1933 Disney cartoon Old King Cole from the Silly Symphony series, in which all of Storyland dances and war-whoops with the Ten Little Indians.
Debbie Reese discusses the distorted context that is still published and is even sold at the National Museum of the American Indian on her blog. Ten Little Rabbits by Virginia Grossman is an award-winning and best selling children’s book that is just bunnies dressed up as Ten Little Indians. Books are often accepted and used in classrooms or at home and only later do teachers gain new information that stops them from using the book. They then find a replacement that does the job better. Beverly Slapin offers an alternative book on her blog.
The most recent manifestation is a line dropped in the popular TV show, The Walking Dead, with the arrival of Tyreese and Sasha at the prison and Sasha describing the outside world as Ten Little Indians. There is actual literary discussion of the symbology of Natives and The Walking Dead. Are we the living or the dead? The living among the dead, the dead among the living? Native writer Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hoopa, Yurok and Karuk) connects the genocide of California tribes to the zombie apocalypse. She eloquently states the case, speaking of the remaining California Natives, “We have seen the end of the world.”
It is so ingrained that people will get up, dance and sing to Ten Little Indians. The most current manifestation is in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, a rock and roll stage play, which actually mirrors Donald Trump’s rise and affection for Jackson. Look up this version of the song on YouTube and you will find community theatre groups all around the country doing their own versions and loving it. Whether they are doing the research, studying genocide and history, we don’t know, but they love to sing the song and act out the dying Indians. Just like the kid’s game, right? Some Natives took it all personally (as in the laughter, applause and inaccuracies) but you can NOT tell Andrew Jackson’s story without the killing and genocide.
An interesting take on the premise of the book, movies and plays, is the original sin, “That each one of them has in some way caused the death of an innocent person and that justice had not been served in their cases,” reads the synopsis of the book by Christie. That seems to be a tacit admission of a type of genocide, in which terrible events occur and innocent people die and somehow many of us, if not most of us, are somehow to blame.
We can see this concept in a Native production, the opening sequence of Blackstone on APTN features a version of the rhyme as a song. It plays as the theme and the effect is genuinely sinister and creepy along with the disintegrating black and white graphic of Natives, we assume are now long passed or ghosts.
Ten Little Indians has come full circle and it’s context is once again about death, killing, murder and genocide. It has its own history and shouldn’t be dismissed outright if it can still be used as a teaching tool, just not for counting. It is not only Natives who are engaging in critical thinking. This is what cultural historian Lewis Mumford said: “Wherever Western man went, slavery, land robbery, lawlessness, culture-wrecking, and the outright extermination of both wild beasts and tame men went with him.”
This story was originally published April 3, 2017.