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Port: Instead of censoring books, maybe we should try understanding them

We shouldn't hide archaic and outdated language; we should try to understand it.

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The Fargo School District headquarters are seen Wednesday, April 20, 2021, at 415 4th St. N. The offices are moving to near Island Park into the old RDO headquarters this year. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

MINOT, N.D. — In Fargo, a middle school student has found herself offended to read the term "Indian" in the famed Agatha Christie novel, "And Then There Were None."

Instead of using the situation to educate this child about language and culture and our always-evolving struggle to find comity on issues of race, the child's mother took up the beef with Fargo Public Schools .

The school district, perhaps leery these days, like so many educators, of provoking marauding parents capable of summoning vociferously indignant social media mobs, has pandered to the outrage.

The perturbed tot now gets to read a specially printed version of the book with the offending verbiage removed.

The school "has provided her a computer print-out of the revised version for her to read while her classmates read the older one," reports Matt Henson .

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If you're not familiar with this novel, one of the most popular books ever published , a key part of the plot is a rhyme, called "10 Little Indians," which Christie derived from old minstrel songs . It originally used the n-word, both in the rhyme and in the title of the book. That was later changed to "Indians," and then ultimately "soldier boys."

Racial epithets are offensive, but Christie's work is not racist. It merely uses language that was, unfortunately, common for the era.

Is that something we should erase from our memories?

According to this disgruntled middle schooler, apparently so. "I imagine innocent Native American people being killed by other people for basically no reason at all," Rainenaya Richards, the student, who should obviously try reading the book before leaping to these sort of conclusions, has said .

"This word for us is derogatory," said Richard's mother, Jennifer Bellew. "We are not Indians — we are Native Americans."

But is that really true? Is "Indian" inherently derogatory?

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Fargo school district taking action after family claims racist novel is read in class
A page from Agatha Christie's novel "And Then There Were None". Matt Henson / WDAY News

Our federal government has the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service . Here in North Dakota, we have the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, an office currently held by Nathan Davis, a descendent of the Spirit Lake Nation and tribal leader of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa .

Along our roads are signs that refer to our state's various Indian reservations.

Indian Country Today is a high-profile media organization owned and operated by Indigenous peoples.

One of the most prominent organizations advocating on behalf of Native Americans is called the National Congress of American Indians .

"Indian Country" is a term often used, everywhere from our laws to the stump speeches of Republican and Democratic politicians, to describe the communities where our Indigenous friends live. The NCAI actually has a position on that term posted on their website : "When used appropriately, Indian Country takes on a powerful meaning, legally and symbolically, for all tribal nations," their statement reads. "Indian Country is wherever American Indian spirit, pride, and community are found."

It's possible to use the word "Indian" in an offensive way, of course. Many words work that way. As an example, in one context, you could call someone a Mexican and merely mean a person from Mexico, while in another context it can be used as a pejorative.

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What matters is intent.

This brings us back to Christie and our aggrieved adolescent.

Her intent was not racism, even if, like in so many works of literature from our past, the way she used language is jarring to modern ears. But our task is not to modify or remove that language, but rather to understand, and to teach, why it doesn't sound right to us today, which is just one of many paths toward understanding literature.

We shouldn't hide archaic and outdated language; we should try to understand it.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a columnist and podcast host for the Forum News Service. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com.
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